|When tragedy comes, DART lends a hand to animals|
|Wednesday, March 21, 2012|
By KEN BECK
When disaster strikes, police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians are there in a flash to aid humans. Close behind may follow Wilson County Emergency Management Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and the National Guard.
But when it comes to others of God’s creatures here below, it’s members of DART that answer the call.
Wilson County’s DART (Disaster Animal Response Team) recently notched its fifth anniversary. The band of creature comforters were called to action after seeing what happened to pet owners in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
“I made two visits to New Orleans after Katrina to help with recovery efforts there with animal rescues, and when I got back I didn’t want to see that happen in our own backyard,” said Julie Hutchison, Wilson County DART president and co-founder.“So I went to WEMA and met with Dr. Melissa Riley, who was the disaster planner at the time, and she thought that it was a fabulous idea. Thus DART was born. At the time, WEMA was doing a lot of research on Wolf Creek and Center Hill Dams, and they were happy to have someone interested in the animal divisions,” Hutchison recalled.
“It was a vision of Col. Jerry McFarland, then acting director of WEMA,” said Riley, state coordinator of the state disaster crisis counseling program, who worked with WEMA from 2005 to 2008 and continues to head Wilson County’s Search and Rescue Unit for Sheriff Terry Ashe. “We all sat down and talked about how we could keep what happened in New Orleans from happening to pet owners and livestock in Tennessee. Under Col McFarland’s guidance, we started up the program.
“We are there when a disaster happens. We help support the rescue, evacuation and sheltering of animals,” said Riley, a Nashville native who holds a doctorate in leadership and education from the University of Mississippi, explaining DART's mission.
The disaster scenarios may be wide-ranging and include tornadoes, dam failures, floods, drought, earthquakes and hazardous-material incidents.
“We deal with dogs, cats, horses, livestock and some exotics including ferrets, guinea pigs and reptiles. We would provide sheltering for the animals, anything we are trained on handling,” Hutchison explained. “We probably wouldn’t take in monkeys or specialty pets like what they have in zoos such as kangaroos, tigers, fierce animals. We do basically domestic animals.”
Last year in Wilson County, DART members helped rescue a dog that had fallen into a sinkhole, pulled a horse out of quicksand and rounded up a donkey running loose in a residential neighborhood. The group that began with a dozen members now numbers 50 with an age span from 18 to 67 years of age.
“I am sure that for the most part our community is unaware of the team and its purpose. The team has really grown over the years, and members continue to train in preparedness,” said Laura Scott, publicity coordinator.
“Last year, several members responded to requests for help by national groups after the tornadoes hit in Alabama and Missouri. Our team was called upon by another national group twice last year to assist in an unofficial capacity with two criminal cases here in Middle Tennessee. The reason the team was asked to assist is because of its experience and training.
“We continually strive to educate the public about disaster preparedness for themselves and their pets,” said Scott, who spent a week last year in Tuscaloosa at Ground Zero and also went to Joplin, Mo., for a week along with Ann Weeks, a local school teacher.
DART holds monthly meetings and several training sessions a year. The training might be first aid for animals, such as mouth-to-snout CPR, water rescue or operating a horse rescue sling. About 30 local members have earned state credentials and a dozen of them have national credentials.
“It’s very easy to get the state credentials. There are four online classes that FEMA requires us to take. They were put in place after Katrina, and it takes about an hour to complete each one. Then you have to take a credentialing class held by the state veterinarian that lasts from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on a Saturday,” said Hutchison, a surgical nurse by day at Wilson County Eye Surgery Center and an animal rescuer at night.
She has a furry family of nine: five big dogs and four horses (two are pets and two were acquired couple of years ago from animal control), and runs Rock Dog Rescue out of her Watertown home.
“I never go out and get them. They just seem to show up here,” said Hutchison, who has made 113 rescues in her community. “I do everything out of pocket. I do it out of love for the animals.”
As for Riley’s motivation, she said, “I have 20 years of service with fire and rescue behind me. This makes sense to not leave the animals behind. They have no choice about whether to stay or go when there is a disaster.”
She keeps three dogs, one that is retired and two that are used for search and rescue. Her Type 1 FEMA dog, Maggie, a Belgian shepherd, found a young boy who survived the February 2008 tornado in Castalian Springs.
Riley, who spelunks and rappels, teamed with a member of the Watertown Volunteer Fire Department last year to rescue a coon hound that fell into an underground cave system.
“Myself and one of the firefighters rappelled down and using ropes and ladders were able to remove the dog to safety,” Riley said of the action that reflects one example of how Wilson County’s DART team serves local citizens and their animals.