First responders learn to shelter animals

A 33-year-old horse has fallen on the ice in his pasture and can’t get up.

He’s losing strength.

He’s a horse that JoAnne Smith has known for 26 years.

She doesn’t own him, but she has fed him, groomed him, ridden him.

The bond between them is such that when riding, her subtlest sign – a slight turn, a certain kind of breathing – suffices.

She loves him.

Something needs to be done, because when horses lay too long, the distribution of their weight can cause breathing, circulatory and nerve problems.

Those can be fatal.

But that weight – Obie is 900 pounds – means that doing something isn’t easy.

Smith is coordinator of the Elk-McKean County Animal Response Team.

She was in Altoona last month as a representative of the American Humane Red Star Animal Emergency Services teaching local first responders – including members of the Blair County Animal Response Team – how to set up shelters for animals during disasters.

Such training reflects the realization of a need for pet accommodations after Hurricane Katrina, when many people died because they refused to leave their companion animals – which rescue workers would not allow on emergency vehicles during evacuations.

Smith showed the attendees during two eight-hour sessions how to select locations for animal shelters, how to design and set up shelters, how to keep records of animals in the shelters, how to care for the animals, how to maintain the shelters, how to ensure the animals’ security, how to decontaminate the shelters, how to handle legal matters connected with the work and how to ensure proper placement of the animals afterwards.

On a Sunday morning, she spoke of taking care of cats, who need more time than dogs to acclimate to shelter surroundings, of the need to establish a routine for cleaning and feeding, and of the difficulty of placing animals whose owners have themselves been displaced.

“If your family is in Texas, what are you going to do?” she asked rhetorically about a hypothetical victim who moves away after losing his or her home. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Determined to keep her own heartbreak at bay when she got the call early on the evening of Jan. 7 that Obie had fallen on the ice, Smith worked with her fellow CART member – Obie’s owner and the owner of the farm.

They put down cat litter, salt, sawdust, hay and even manure to give the Arabian gelding some traction.

After about an hour, however, it became apparent he was too tired to lift himself, so they called the local fire company.

The firefighters brought a utility truck with a winch, then placed a sheet of plywood next to Obie, planning to roll him over onto it, then drag him to a snowy area, where they hoped there would be enough traction for him to scramble to his feet.

Before they could roll him, he tried to rise and fell onto the wood, after which they dragged him to the snowy area.

But he was too tired to take advantage.

His legs were shaking.

So they dragged him with the winch to a spot near the front door of the barn, then worked together to drag him on the plywood 60 feet through the corridor between the stalls to a spot in front of his own stall.

They were hoping the warmth of the barn would revive him sufficiently to stand.

But it had been more than four hours since he’d fallen, and he couldn’t do it.

So they brought a backhoe into the barn and extended the trench bucket over the horse, with plans to lift him to his feet with tow straps – although a sling would have been better.

The corridor was too narrow for the operator to extend the stabilizers, so people had to stand in the loader bucket, as a counter-balance to the weight of the horse.

Obie had struggled so that he was lying on his chest by then, which gave them room to feed the straps under him, after which they worked one back underneath.

The operator lifted too quickly at first, then lowered Obie too quickly.

Horses have a delicate anatomy, and they had to be careful not to inflict injury with the straps.

A wrong placement could have killed him.

They ended up lifting about an inch at a time, then letting Obie rest, until he was upright.

They never took him high enough for his hooves to leave the floor, never put his whole weight on the straps.

About 45 minutes after lifting with the machine, he got enough feeling back in his legs to stand on his own.

At that point, he walked into his stall and began to eat.

He has completely recovered.

Smith was so wired after the five-hour ordeal that she didn’t sleep all night.

Obie’s rescue wasn’t part of a response to a widespread disaster, but it’s the kind of operation that the Blair County Animal Response Team has performed during its several years in existence.

There are generally two or three incidents a year, and they’ve included the rescue of an elk from a pond, the capture of cows that escaped from a truck whose tailgate came open on I-99 and the capture of a cow that had meandered onto a runway at the Altoona-Blair County Airport, said Bill Forsht, the coordinator.

He understands the phenomenon of the human-animal bond, having been involved with animals all his life, including show dogs for 30 years.

It’s not hard to fathom how people risked – and lost their lives – because they were unwilling to leave their pets, he said.

And it’s a matter of “if, not when” a disaster requiring the group to put into practice what it learned over the weekend, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.