By Donald Vaughan
Cookie was following her owner across their yard in Gilchrist County, Fla., outside Gainesville, when the ground suddenly opened up, plunging the 10-year-old pug to the bottom of a 30-foot sinkhole. Among the agencies called in to rescue Cookie was the University of Florida Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service (UFVETS), which provides veterinary emergency response throughout the state.
Once the sinkhole had been shored up to prevent a cave-in, VETS team member Jennifer Groover, DVM, was lowered down via an A-frame.
“The hole was so narrow that I couldn’t bend over,” Dr. Groover said, “but Cookie was so happy to have a way out that she climbed up my leg and into my arms, and then they lifted us out. Thankfully, she was unharmed by the fall.”
Technical rescues like this are all in a day’s work for the agency, said John Haven, CPA, UFVETS team leader and the UF College of Veterinary Medicine executive director. The program also provides emergency services during natural disasters such as hurricanes (they’re very busy now!), tornadoes, and wildfires, as well as for large-scale animal hoarding cases.
Born from adversity
UFVETS was established in 2004, which saw Florida threatened by several hurricanes in quick succession. When Hurricane Charley menaced central Florida, the assistant state veterinarian for emergency management tasked
Haven with deploying a disaster response team to provide patient care. A former volunteer firefighter with emergency management training, Haven quickly assembled a response team from scratch, ferried the group using his personal RV, and spent a couple of weeks in Bartow, Fla. “taking care of animals of all shapes and sizes.”
In short order, hurricanes Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne also threatened the Sunshine State, and each time Haven and his team were deployed to do everything from relocating horses from a flood plain to transporting donated food and supplies to affected animal shelters.
“At the end of the storm season, the state veterinary office asked us to develop a true response capability,” Haven said. The effort was supported with funding assistance from the Florida Veterinary Medical Association, the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, PetSmart Charities, and other foundations and private donors.
“During a declared incident, we are a statewide asset,” Haven said. “As such, we are part of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which allows us to provide assistance across state lines. When Hurricane Matthew came through last year, we were in discussions with Georgia and South Carolina, but we ended up not having to deploy.”
Participating veterinarians are a mix of veterinary students and private practitioners.
“We involve a lot of students,” Haven said. “Typically, there are 20 to 30 per academic class that are really interested in disaster response.”
Private practitioners are organized into what is known as the Veterinary Reserve Corps, a designation that ensures they receive the same liability and health protections as traditional state employees.
A novel calling
Groover, now an intern at Michigan State University, was a fourth-year student when she assisted in Cookie’s rescue.
“I have always been interested in emergency and critical care, so it was a pretty easy transition,” she said. “It was interesting to see a veterinary program that involved some first response rather than patients always coming to the hospital.”
Catherine McManus, VMD, MPH, DACVPM, now the veterinarian for Irving Animal Services in Irving, Tex., was a Maddie’s Fund Shelter Medicine Resident at the University of Florida during the years she worked on the UFVETS team. She saw the program as necessary training for working in shelter medicine and gained much from the experience. One incident in which Dr. McManus was involved was a hoarding case in Alachua County involving more than 600 cats; she also participated in the rescue of a horse that was stuck in mud up to its head.
UFVETS volunteers receive training in a
wide variety of skills specific to technical rescues, natural disasters, and more. To hone their capabilities and those of regional veterinary first responders, each year the team helps one Florida county exercise its disaster response plan.
“This is not a tabletop exercise,” Haven said. “We move equipment and work with state and federal agencies such as FEMA, as well as nongovernmental agencies such as the Red Cross.”
During a recent exercise in Hillsborough County, the UFVETS team brought in people and their pets on buses as if they were being transferred from a collection site to a shelter. They even simulated special needs victims—some were blind and had their guide dogs, others had medical issues and arrived with their support dogs.
The program also conducts an annual disease lab exercise, which requires students to dress in the protective equipment of a foreign animal disease diagnostician, conduct an examination of a particular horse, and bring the information back through the decontamination corridor.
For Sara Almcrantz, DVM, MPH, currently a veterinarian with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps at Fort Carson, Colo., the mock disaster drill and other opportunities, such as assisting in the rescue of a cow stuck in mud, were revelatory.
“The program opened my eyes to an unconventional realm of veterinary medicine,” she said. “The training I received through UFVETS will potentially apply to what I am tasked to do in the military, because if there is a natural disaster, as a Veterinary Corps officer, I could be deployed. My VETS training will make me more ready to serve that mission.”
Those involved with the UFVETS program find the work extremely satisfying, but they acknowledge an element of danger.
“Sinkholes are a little scary,” Haven said. “We have to manage those in a way that they do not become a cave-in hazard to the team.”
Aggressive behavior from the animals being rescued is another concern, as are injuries from working with livestock.
“It’s easy to get hurt during a horse rescue if you’re not paying attention to where you are in relation to the horse,” said McManus.
Nonetheless, team members say they get a lot out of their involvement, and many believe it will help make them better practitioners.
“I’ve learned how to take a difficult situation and come up with different choices to help bring about the outcome I want,” Groover said. “Situational awareness and trying to think of different ways to do things is an invaluable skill.”
“The program has made me a better practitioner in that I learned how to be much more flexible and to think on my feet because we don’t always have access to ivory tower medicine, especially in disaster response situations,” she said.