We watch in horror when the TV news reports on horses and other animals stranded in the wake of fires, floods and hurricanes, helpless against the forces of nature. But we can also do something about it, too. One story that came out of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy told of a lady whose horse fortunately had an island of high ground on which to stand. The family evacuated safely and the woman boated to her horse daily to carry hay to it as she waited for the water to recede. One day she arrived to find her horse had been shot, its hay still at its feet. Whether a misguided mercy killing or act of vandalism we will never know. We hear these stories and we want to know what we can do to make sure our animals are safe, and how we can help others in trouble.
When a major disaster is imminent the best defense is knowledge—especially for those who board horses. Have a plan of where to go and what to do. Don’t wait until the last minute to act. Find out who in your state is in charge of animal rescue. North Carolina founded the State Animal Response Team (SART) after Hurricane Floyd slammed into the state on September 15, 1999 and caused the most severe flooding in the state’s history. Several other states have since created their own SART chapters. Contact your county extension service or state veterinarian’s office to find out what organization manages animal rescue in emergencies. Fair grounds, stables, or riding clubs often provide emergency stabling facilities.
There are many resources with information on how to prepare for a major disaster. No matter what part of the country we live in, there is always the possibility of a storm, an act of terrorism or wild fire. Learn the evacuation routes ahead of time, be sure you have transportation, and keep your towing vehicles’ gas tanks full. Keep your trailer(s) road-ready at all times. Make sure the horses in your care load easily before there is an emergency. Evacuate before the storm or other emergency hits with full force.
Identify the animals with photographs, registration papers, vet records, and Coggins tests. Keep those records with you, even if you have to leave the horses behind. You may need those records to prove ownership of the horses later on. The chance of a disaster is a good reason for micro-chipping or branding the animals in your care. Another way to identify horses is to purchase blank cattle ear tags from a farm supply store. Write your name, delivery address, phone numbers and the horse’s name with a permanent marker on the tag and braid it into the horse’s mane or tail. Spray painting your phone number in white or blaze orange on both sides of the horse’s barrel or hip is another way to insure rescuers can trace your horses back to you should they get lost.
Communicate with neighbors and other professionals in your area to let them know your plan. And make sure the horses at your barn are up to date on all vaccinations, especially sleeping sickness or West Nile Virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, which thrive in flooded areas.
If evacuation is not possible, the one question that comes up repeatedly is, “Should I leave the horses in the pasture or put them in the barn?” The Sunshine State (Fla.) Horse Council’s “Disaster Planning For Country Property” brochure says, “the safest place for large animals to weather a storm is in a large pasture.” The brochure sites collapsed barns as the leading cause of death in a windstorm. The pasture should be free of exotic trees, have no overhead power lines, be away from areas that might generate flying debris, have a low-lying area where animals can seek shelter and high ground that will not flood.
If your pastures do not meet that criteria, then the article, “Hurricane Preparations for Horse Farms,” on the NCSU Animal Science website, makes a good case for leaving your horses in the barn. It recommends that if your barn is well constructed, the horses should be inside to lessen the chance of them being injured by flying debris. On the other hand, the article says if the barn is poorly constructed or in poor repair, it is better to leave them in a naturally protected, well-fenced pasture. An additional tip is to put a fly mask on the pastured horses to prevent flying debris from injuring their eyes. If the horses are haltered be sure it is with a break away halter.
The NCSU article also advises that when preparing for a hurricane, stockpile a week’s supply of drinking water, feed and hay (and plenty of fence repair material). Even if the storm damage is not severe at your farm, if the power goes out around you, your water pumps will not work. Also, roads may be blocked and prevent travel to feed stores. Items to have on hand before emergencies are a knife, adhesive tape, duct tape, scissors, rope, extra halters, clean towels, antiseptic, soap, leg wraps, antibiotic ointments, tranquilizers, pain relievers, bandages, bee sting kit, insect repellent, flash light and batteries.
Many problems can arise with the aftermath of a hurricane or tornado, including fallen trees, power outages, flooded areas, and increased insect population.
After the storm and once you have checked on your horses’ welfare, take photographs of any storm damage to your buildings and fences. Be sure horses cannot come in contact with fallen trees, downed power lines and storm debris by checking all of your turnout carefully. Many trees such as wild cherry are very toxic. Even small twigs and leaves can prove fatal if eaten by your horse.
Notify the power company of outages. If you have a large number of horses, water delivery may be available from the local fire department, if they can reach your farm, and you let them know it is urgent. Keep in mind the horses may be frightened and not recognize their changed environment after a disaster has ended. Their behavior can be unpredictable. Be especially careful if handling a strange horse. If you take in someone else’s animal, quarantine it from your horses until the owner picks it up or it has been examined by a vet and given a clean bill of health.
If the Worst Happens
In spite of all our efforts to be prepared, sometimes the worst happens and a horse dies in natural disasters. Disposal of dead animals can be a problem in the wake of a storm, especially when several animals are lost. It is the responsibility of the owner and necessary for the public’s health, to properly dispose of the bodies. Most states have laws to cover the disposal of dead domestic animals. The guidelines include rules about the burial site, how much soil must cover the body, and the need to report the location of the burial site to authorities. Check with your county livestock agent about your state’s laws.
How to Help
Horse folk are known for their comradery. When we hear of other horse owners who are in the path of a natural disaster, we want to help. There are several ways to offer assistance:
• Offer safe space if you have it. Stalls and pasture away from the path of the storm or fire are needed for evacuees. Contact SART or your county extension office and let them know what accommodations you have to offer.
• Donate feed and hay, delivering it to the shelter sites if possible; monetary donations are often needed, too.
• Volunteer to transport animals, muck stalls at shelters, and help round up loose horses.
SART, FEMA and other animal-welfare groups often offer training workshops for people who wish to help in animal disaster relief. Check their websites for information and dates of workshops in your area.