Even though preparation had been going on for a few years and a system was developed for a theoretical disaster, on August 29 Hurricane Katrina created a reality far beyond the scope of any theory.
"We had to learn by doing," says Dr. Rustin Moore, director of Equine Health Studies at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge, and coordinator for the operation that has become known as Horse Emergency Rescue Operation (HERO). "It took a couple of days for us to get it all together, but by the time they started letting us get into the hardest hit areas, we were ready to go."
The effort that followed is an intense rescue operation that includes a toll-free "Horse Help Line" manned 24/7 by LSU vet students, pre-vet students and outside volunteers, who have been taking calls from horse owners forced to evacuate without their horses. The volunteers document information including the horse's name, identifying marks, last known location, tattoo and microchip numbers (if available) and the owner's contact information. This data is then passed along to rescue teams consisting of LSU veterinarians, vet techs, vet students and volunteers.
The rescue teams then take the information and group it with other horses identified in close proximity, and the teams spring into action. With a landscape wiped clean of street signs and many landmarks that once made it easy for outsiders to find their way around, the rescue teams often have to rely on whatever locals remain in the flood-ravaged area to help find stranded animals.
"Our teams have been picking up five or more horses at a time," says Moore. "They also pick up any dogs they find. At one point they filled a stock trailer with 30 dogs and brought it to Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, a facility about 35 miles east of Baton Rouge that serves as the staging area we are using to house rescued animals until we can check them out and make sure they are stable enough to travel to more permanent housing or be picked up by their owners."
Despite rumors to the contrary, members of various law enforcement and military have not been shooting animals. They are in fact corralling them, and providing food and water until the animal rescue groups like those from LSU can come to get them.
Heading up the treatment and daily care of the rescued animals is Dr. Dennis French, professor of equine veterinary science at LSU. "Dr. French is putting in incredibly long hours seeing to it that these animals are all given the best care possible," says Moore.
Horses that seem to have fared the best in the hurricane and resultant floods were those that were left outside. The majority of horses that were lost were those left inside barns that collapsed or flooded.
In the course of the first 15 days following Katrina's landfall, the faculty, staff and students at LSU's vet school have rescued over 350 horses and 1,200 small animals from seven Louisiana parishes (counties) that were hardest hit. "Ever since the storm, rescuing animals has been the sole focus of the vet school. All of us here have other jobs we are supposed to be doing, but helping save animals has pushed everything else to the side," says Moore.
Dawn Kelly, an LSU vet technician, rescues a horse on a levee in Plaquemines Parish. The horse had fled there to escape high water. | Photo by Dr. Lee Ann Fugler
Among those who pushed everything aside was Dr. Ron Giordina, a volunteer rescue vet from St. Bernard Parish who lost everything he owned when his home was completely submerged in floodwaters.
Ultimately, the dedication is paying off; over 80 horses have been reunited with their owners and additional happy endings are continuing daily thanks to the efforts of the dedicated volunteers of HERO.
If you would like to assist in this ongoing effort and the continued care of rescued horses, monetary contributions to this all-volunteer operation really do make a difference. To make a contribution to the Louisiana Veterinary Medical Association Equine Committee, please make out your check to LVMA Equine Committee. Please write "Horse Hurricane Relief" in the memo line and mail to: Dr. Sonny Corley, LVMA Equine Committee, 121 E. Gloria Switch, Lafayette, LA 70507. For more information please contact the LSU Equine Health Studies Program at www.LSUEquine.com.
Find out the other ways you can help the equine refugees affected by Hurricane Katrina through donations and more on EquiSearch's Hurricane Katrina Equine Relief Information page.