Mississippi Animal Response Team (MART) members and Mississippi Task Force members practice proper use of straps and glides for animal rescue. The TLAER — Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue — was part of a past training course in Wiggins. Learn more about being a MART volunteer at the Mississippi Board of Animal Health website, mbah.state.ms.us. Photo by: Courtesy photo
Dr. Carla Huston, associate professor with the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine and a Clay County resident, heads the MART veterinary strike team and is board president and co-chair of the Mississippi Animal Disaster Relief Fund.
Photo by: Kevin Hudson/MSU Extension Service
Trainees are taught how to use personal protective equipment in case of infectious diseases such as a highly pathogenic avian influenza during training at the Mississippi State poultry unit in February 2016.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
CPR animal models are used during MART training in November 2017.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
At a Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue course in Raymond, participants perform a vertical lift of a large animal, in this case a llama. The method is used to extract animals out of dangerous situations using standard fire department rescue equipment.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
Using balloons and large needles, Dr. Betsy Swanson of the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, right, teaches MART volunteers how to treat emergency canine bloat in November 2017.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
January 20, 2018 10:01:03 PM
Carla Huston was hands-on for eight weeks after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, working alongside others to blunt the devastation to hundreds, if not thousands, of pets and livestock on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. As difficult as the experience was, there were uplifting moments. They remind Dr. Huston and other members of MART -- the Mississippi Animal Response Team -- why they volunteer.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, oil spills, mudslides -- when disasters hit, the focus is first on human toll. But animals are caught on the front lines as well. Huston, a Clay County resident and associate professor at the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, is one of several area volunteers with MART. It's the official coordination and response team for disasters involving animals and agriculture.
When requested by a state or county, MART can deploy groups to affected communities in a supporting role. Much of the work involves the MART veterinary strike team and the veterinary shelter support team.
"Through the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, we get assigned on a mission," explained Huston, who heads the veterinary strike team. "It may be to assess an area for animal needs, or assess an area for agricultural damage. It may be to support local animal shelters or local veterinary service providers."
In the wake of a hurricane like Katrina, or the tornadoes that destroyed sections of Louisville and Tupelo in 2014, vet clinics and animal shelters are often overwhelmed with an influx of animals. MART teams can quickly assess what infrastructure is available to deal with the emergency and can send trained volunteers to assist with triage, or even feed and walk animals.
In extreme situations where there are no services up and working, MART can set up temporary hospitals.
It means helping communities build resiliency by supporting their people, Huston said. For many, pets are like family members. For others, their animals are their livelihood.
"It may be locating and caring for a pet so a family can focus on important things like taking care of their neighbors, or finding a place to live. Maybe just simply giving them emotional support by having that pet nearby and knowing it's safe. Or it may be helping the dairy farmer get back to milking so he can maintain business continuity to feed his family, and his cows won't get sick due to lack of milking. ... All are equally important when it comes to a community."
Huston has been involved in about 10 MART activations since Katrina, two of them in 2017. The most recent was September, when the team readied to deploy to Florida as Hurricane Irma threatened. (Just as states share firefighters in times of extreme need, MART can assist outside Mississippi as well.) Irma's path shifted, and teams were not sent out. But emergencies don't always come in the form of weather-related events.
When a military aircraft crashed in a Leflore County field in the Delta on July 10, Huston led the strike team of MSU College of Veterinary Medicine MART members sent to provide care to military and federal agency working dogs searching the miles-large crash site in extreme summer heat.
Other calamities may trigger MART deployment, as volunteer Dr. Karen Emerson of Emerson Animal Hospital in West Point discovered when she took part in a three-day training course in the Jackson area. It covered multiple situations, including potential transport wrecks involving large animals like horses, cattle or swine.
"We talked about how to formulate your strategic plan to get those animals taken care of, vet care and safety to protect the public and yourself," Emerson said. "It teaches you how to respond."
Veterinarians and police and fire department personnel took the course, but so did volunteers from the general public.
Who can help?
"We're open to anybody that's interested," Beth Adcock of Copiah County told The Dispatch. She is the state's overall MART coordinator. "We have a variety of people that volunteer -- everyone from shelter workers, veterinarians, vet techs and others who just want to help animals."
Training is generally offered twice a year in or near Jackson or in Starkville. Topics range from basic animal behavior and handling in emergencies to pet (and human) first aid. Specialized training can include how to use personal protective equipment in the event of highly infectious or zoonotic (affecting animals and humans) diseases like highly pathogenic avian influenza.
More about required training can be found at the Mississippi Animal Board of Health website, mbah.state.ms.us. Click on "MS Animal Response Team (MART)" under the Emergency Programs heading.
Huston wears many hats, including one as the state's Beef Quality Assurance program coordinator and also the MSU Extension Service veterinarian.
She also is board president of the Mississippi Animal Disaster Relief Fund, which was established so monetary donations could be received and disbursements made following Hurricane Katrina. Following that disaster, the fund distributed more than $371,000, assisting 46 veterinarians and their clients. Huston estimates the monies have assisted between 700 and 800 livestock animals and pets.
The relief fund has since distributed about $60,000 in assistance to clinics, rescue shelters and livestock owners for emergency needs, including boarding and medical costs.
"The fund is run completely from corporate and private donations from people who want to help," Huston said.
Conversations about animals in disasters often come back to Katrina. That storm's massive impact revealed critical needs in emergency response. The PETS Act -- Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, an amendment to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act -- was enacted by the U.S. Congress in January 2006. It requires that state and local emergency preparedness plans address the needs of individuals with pets and service animals following a major disaster or emergency.
"Katrina really changed how animals were handled after disasters," Huston said.
As catastrophic as the hurricane was, it also prompted a swell of concern for animal welfare, providing some of those uplifting moments Huston experienced in the aftermath.
"So many people lost everything, and helping their animals, large and small, or reuniting them with their pets, brought them some personal comfort and relief," she said. "The resiliency and positive attitude of the people affected, as well as all of the responders, was amazing."
MART's mission continues to focus on preparedness and planning, so that when an event happens, risks can be mitigated.
"When properly prepared, people know what to do and can respond and recover quickly and more efficiently," she said.
Volunteers are at the mission's core, and compassion, Emerson noted, is a key ingredient.
"If you have the compassion and want to help animals and people," she said, "you would be a good MART volunteer."
Editor's note: Learn more about MART and the disaster relief fund at mbah.state.ms.us. Some figures in this story are courtesy of an MSU Extension press release by Nathan Gregory.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.