BRATTLEBORO—“The key to having a public disaster team is: nobody ever has to decide whether to evacuate because they are worried about their animals,” said Carolyn Conrad, director of operations at the Windham County Humane Society (WCHS) and treasurer for the newly formed Windham Disaster Animal Response Team (WinDART).
There has been no disaster animal response team in Windham County, she said.
But that is about to change.
WinDART has recent received its charter as a regional operating team of Vermont Disaster Animal Response Team (VDART), and soon, its nonprofit status.
So “after today’s training, we’ll be ready to deploy in an emergency,” Conrad told The Commons at the first WinDART introduction and training on emergency pet sheltering at the WCHS on Oct. 25.
Although the training took place at the shelter, whose board and staff are supportive of VDART, Conrad said the shelter cannot be a part of the animal response teams, “because during a disaster, we’ll be taking care of our own animals.”
Joanne Bourbeau, Northeastern regional director of the Humane Society of the United States, led the training, along with Conrad, Jen Denyou, and Lindsay Hamrick.
“If there’s a federal emergency declared, our team is activated” using VTAlert, Bourbeau said.
She said VDART and its affiliate regional teams are also activated during animal cruelty cases.
Bourbeau said Chittenden County’s team members assisted their local Humane Society earlier this year when shelter workers and the Vermont State Police seized 60 dogs and three cats from a home in Eden.
CCDART — the chartered affiliate group for Chittenden County — set up a mobile trailer with crates, medical equipment, linens, and bedding for the rescued animals.
Volunteers in training
Most, but not all, of the training seminar’s attendees came with previous professional animal-handling experience.
Some worked with other animal shelters as board members, employees, and volunteers. A few were VDART board members.
One volunteer described herself as a therapeutic riding instructor, and another attendee is studying animal law.
Bourbeau told The Commons she was happy with the number of volunteers who attended that day, noting “15 is kind of the perfect number, and that’s about how many people showed up.”
Still, she said there is room for more, and “we’re looking toward locals to provide their expertise.”
She said there will be additional training sessions in the future, including those covering handling livestock and large animals.
“It’s easy to get volunteers,” Bourbeau said, but “it’s harder to get good leadership, to keep people motivated between disasters.”
“We need to recruit more veterinarians,” Bourbeau said.
Bourbeau said WinDART’s executive committee is looking for additional board members.
As a press release promised, the day’s attendees learned “protocols for setting up, operating and breaking down a temporary animal shelter” and “basic animal handling and stress reduction techniques” for cats, dogs, and rabbits.
Participants received folders with information about how to “read” the vocal communications and body language of the animals.
First of a number of levels
The training, “Emergency Animal Sheltering Course — Basic,” is the first step in the DART Level One Training. In addition, hopeful WinDART volunteers must take five free, self-paced, online courses through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Through the online courses, volunteers will learn things like the Incident Command System (ICS) structure, which WinDART uses, and the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which, according to the VDART website, is “a consistent nationwide template to enable all government, private-sector, and nongovernmental organizations to work together during domestic incidents.”
During the introduction, Bourbeau told the group that during the training portion of the seminar, “we’re going to make this as realistic as we possibly can.” She reminded attendees that they would be learning in a working shelter, housing animals. That meant that some spaces were off-limits.
This restriction would be beneficial to the trainees, as it made the training more realistic.
“The great thing about disaster training” in working venues is, it reminds volunteers that in a disaster, “anything can happen,” Bourbeau said.
“The purpose of the training is to form a cohesive team,” she said, where skills are developed. It also allows for team members to identify existing skill levels or places where some are lacking.
Thus, in the event of an actual disaster, “we won’t put you in any situation you can’t handle,” and for which “you haven’t been trained,” Bourbeau said.
Handling bunnies, speaking rabbit
Conrad led the first participatory portion of the day’s training: handling bunnies.
As attendees flipped through the handout “How to Speak Rabbit,” she demonstrated the safest and least-stressful way to pick up and place a rabbit into an animal carrier.
As she reached into the pen housing BK and Francie, two fluffy, lop-eared rabbits, she pointed out the loud thumping sound.
“Rabbits thump when they are scared,” she said.
Next, Conrad explained how fragile rabbits’ spines are. Upon picking up Francie, the butterscotch-and-white female, she immediately supported the bunny’s backside. Otherwise, she said, she could seriously injure the rabbit.
“Bunnies are prey animals,” Conrad explained. “They are always expecting someone to come and eat them” — a fact that she cautioned volunteers to keep in mind when they approach rabbits in need of rescue.
The danger of ignoring a rabbit’s stress response can quickly turn an animal-rescue maneuver into the exact opposite.
“Rabbits can go into cardiac arrest in no time,” Conrad said.
Conrad placed her hand over Francie’s eyes — a demonstration of a way to calm a stressed rabbit.
Jen Denyou reminded the volunteers that in a sheltering environment, where conditions might not be ideal and multiple animals might need to be housed, it is crucial to improvise and minimize the animals’ stress.
“Don’t put Bunny next to Cujo,” she said, adding that if space is an issue, “put a blanket or tarp over the rabbit’s cage to lower its stress.”
Denyou, who serves as vice chair of WinDART, also volunteers as a humane agent.
In that latter role, “I respond to and investigate cruelty/neglect calls throughout Windham County,” she wrote. “I have completed all four levels of training offered in Vermont, and I’m 40 hours away from completing my Animal Cruelty Investigator certification, through the Law Enforcement Training Institute (LETI) of Missouri,” she wrote in an email to The Commons.
Calming a squirming cat
After the rabbit training, the group made its way into the cat room, where Bourbeau and Conrad demonstrated two methods for dealing with cats in emergencies: first, how to safely approach one in the least-stressful way possible, and the best method for putting it into a carrier.
To reinforce how to read a cat’s body language, Bourbeau pointed out the cats sheltered in the facility’s kennels.
“Which cats are stressed?” she asked attendees. “Which are content?"
Conrad instructed volunteers on one method for calming a squirming cat: support its body with one hand, and with the other, grab the scruff of its neck.
“That’s how the mother carried it,” she said, adding, “the harder you scruff, the more limp the cat will get."
For dogs, body language is critical
After putting a few cats and kittens in carriers, the group went to the outdoor dog kennel for a canine-rescue and -handling demonstration, led by Denyou and Lindsay Hamrick, state director of the New Hampshire Humane Society.
“Our body language is crucial” to handling dogs in a disaster scenario, Hamrick told attendees.
So is consistency.
“Whether it’s a friendly dog or a vicious dog, greet every single dog” the same, she said.
Denyou advised attendees, “if you see a dog in a cage, don’t stick your fingers in there."
“Even if you know the dog,” she said, “you don’t know its condition or its stress level. You don’t know how an animal is going to react.”
Hamrick and Denyou demonstrated how to plan what might be a common scenario in animal rescue operations: how to walk leashed dogs past other kenneled dogs. The idea, Hamrick said, is to decrease stress in all of the animals.
One method they demonstrated, with Conrad assisting, is to throw treats to the back of the cage of kenneled dogs while a leashed dog is walked by the cage, thus distracting the caged canines.
What (not) to wear
Denyou said for those handling dogs, “gloves are crucial, because leashes can be slippery.” She said any type of glove will do: mechanical gloves, biking gloves, leather gloves, or gardening gloves.
Bad things to wear, added Conrad, are hats, scarves, or sunglasses.
“In a shelter environment, try not to wear things that mask your face,” she said, explaining that “this stresses dogs out.”
In a disaster scenario, where “you have three seconds to get out of the house,” Hamrick recommended the following to volunteers: “grab a slip-lead, hot dogs, and cheese. Milk-Bones won’t cut it.”
“Any hot dogs will do,” Denyou added. “They’re cheap,” and it is easy to keep a package on stand-by in the refrigerator.
“Your dog won’t care if they’re kosher,” she said.
“Cans of spray cheese!” Conrad added to the list of things to soothe and manage a distressed doggie, noting “they don’t expire.”
“You won’t believe how much of a gold mine you have in spray cheese,” Denyou noted, prompting the group to discuss the variety of flavors available in the spray-cheese section of the grocery store.
Their conclusion: the dogs don’t care; they’ll eat it all.
None of the humans present claimed any interest in eating the spray cheese themselves.
From animal lover to rescue pro
To the attendees, Hamrick and Denyou stressed the importance of behavior in an animal rescue operation: human behavior, that is.
“Certain dogs react better to certain people,” Denyou said. For example, smaller, anxious dogs tend to like shorter people, she said.
“Use that to your advantage,” she said.
“Always be methodical,” Denyou said, adding, “go through the steps, don’t underestimate a dog.”
“You have to set the animal lover aside and be a professional,” Denyou said.
Hamrick noted the purpose of animal rescue is to keep dogs safe, not to “love on them.”
“If you need to love on a dog,” Hamrick said, “go home.”