Texas A&M’s Veterinary Emergency Team impacts the state, nation and world through disaster response and relief efforts.
Presented with an extremely weak canine and two others in an acute, lethargic state, Strike Team 1 of Texas A&M University’s Veterinary Emergency Team (VET) needed answers fast. The team first considered a stomach virus, perhaps caught from foul flood waters in the area. But signs pointed in another direction: The team had reason to believe one of the dogs had ingested petroleum.
Deb Zoran, a professor of veterinary medicine and the associate director of the VET, directed the team to a website that helps first responders identify possible poisonings based on symptoms. “In a flood, all kinds of household products can end up in the water,” she said. As the team debated whether the dogs could be saved, Zoran’s walkie-talkie crackled. “Strike Team 2 has an animal that needs to be decontaminated,” a voice said.
The scene was one of urgency and consequence. It was also simulated. The case details were fabricated to give the team a sense of the real issues and challenges that responders face when caring for animals in an emergency—part of the VET’s annual deployment exercise in Fort Hood in February. Simulations revolved around flash flooding and low-level flooding in the area around the military base, where the VET was stationed for three days in full force: 32 people, medical and logistics trailers, trucks and service vans, and 3,000 square feet of climate-controlled tent space.
Texas A&M’s VET is the largest, most sophisticated veterinary emergency response unit in the country, and the most deployed. “More federal disasters happen in Texas than in any other state,” said Wesley Bissett. As director of the VET, Bissett has led the group in its response to numerous disasters, including the 2011 fires in Bastrop, Texas, the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, and the 2016 floods in Fort Bend and Brazoria Counties. “Our efforts impact the far corners of our state and nation.”
One positive outcome arose following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005: U.S. authorities realized that many people refuse to evacuate their homes in emergencies because they don’t want to leave their pets. Large numbers of homeless and lost pets after the hurricane demonstrated that local emergency efforts must include a more coordinated approach. Hoping to prevent a similar scenario in Texas, the state Division of Emergency Management asked Texas A&M in 2009 to form a mobile veterinary unit that could deploy with other first responders during natural or man-made disasters.
The VET saw its first real action during the Bastrop fires. The unit—with only one trailer at the time—deployed with Texas Task Force 1, which works with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Part of its mission was to attend to the Task Force’s search and rescue dogs, keeping them healthy as they combed through acres of burned land. With four to six exams daily, plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and bandages to protect paws from the hot, ash-covered ground, the service dogs worked for six continuous days in good health.
A second component of the team’s duty was to triage and stabilize animals impacted by the fires. The group, which included nine veterinary students, triaged and stabilized more than 150 animals rescued from the fire’s aftermath at no charge to owners or to the community.
“We recognized the profound impact the VET could have on our students,” reported Bissett. “Now fourth year veterinary students must spend two weeks of clinical rotation in veterinary medical emergency preparedness and response through our Community Connections Course. We are the only veterinary school in the country with such a requirement.
“The rotations teach students the value of teamwork, community outreach and communication,” said Bissett. “I’m convinced that even if these students never get involved with emergency medicine in their careers, they’ll still walk away with knowledge and management skills important to succeeding in private practice.”
If there are no deployments during a rotation, students participate in the VET’s bimonthly exercises with Texas Task Force 1 search and rescue dogs and partake in virtual emergency exercises. They also help Texas counties integrate animal evacuation and sheltering into their emergency plans.
“The days spent on deployment were unlike anything I've experienced,” said Sarah White ’13 ’17, who spent three days with the VET when it deployed during flooding in Brazoria County last summer. “My biggest takeaway was the importance of the human-animal bond. We saw a constant stream of people—people who had just lost everything—who wanted to know what they could do for us because we saved their animals.”
In Bastrop, it was burns. In the Brazoria floods in 2016, the team saw horses and livestock lose skin and flesh on their legs from standing in flood waters for days. In the West explosion, ruptured eardrums were the most common affliction. And in every deployment, the team treats many dehydrated animals, since fresh water may be inaccessible.
When the team deploys to a disaster scene, its first responsibility is triage. Members must quickly assess an animal’s condition and prioritize treatment. The second objective is stabilization. Though its trailers are well-equipped with supplies and diagnostics such as ultrasound, the team can’t perform intricate tests, X-rays or surgery. Each animal examined must be moved to an animal hospital, a shelter or an owner. The alternative—if the animal can’t be saved—is euthanasia. While this is avoided when possible, it may be the most humane option if the animal is suffering. Nevertheless, two doctors must agree before any animal can be put down.
“We see animals we don’t know much about that usually come in without an owner,” said Zoran. “We can’t do much lab work. We have to use our physical exam skills, experience, and basic, real-world medicine.”
The team deploys after a county or community hit by a man-made or natural disaster requests assistance from the state’s Emergency Management Division. While in the field, the 20 to 24 deployed VET team members work 12- to 16-hour days, trying their best to save every animal possible. While the VET works in conjunction with local veterinarians and resources, its mission is to take the load off of private practitioners.
“During an emergency, veterinary offices get overwhelmed with the combination of disaster-impacted animals and regular patients,” said Cheryl Ellis, a lecturer in emergency management in the college. “Most veterinary practices are small businesses, and when people bring in animals without an owner, who pays the bill? Most veterinarians would never refuse to treat an animal, but disaster scenarios can create financial hardship.”
The VET’s longest deployment spanned 18 days, when Zoran and Bissett took care of Bentley, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who belonged to Nina Pham, the Dallas nurse who contracted Ebola. During longer-term deployments, VET members—some of whom are veterinarians and technicians in private practice—leave their homes and jobs to set up the VET’s field hospital and live on site. For those who teach or work at Texas A&M, other professors and staff members fill in during their absence.
Compensation for long, intense days comes when owners are reunited with their pets. “Animals play such an important role in our lives. They are part of the family,” Bissett said. “Reuniting an animal with its owner plays a big role in healing. You’re helping an individual take the first steps to recovery and getting them through their very worst day.”
When Zoran and Bissett returned Bentley to Pham—both cleared from the Ebola scare—Pham said it felt like Christmas.
“These accommodations are relatively comfortable, but not 14-day comfortable,” commented Bissett, as he stood in a trailer with cots running down each side, all of them piled high with backpacks and sleeping bags. “This is home for doctors and volunteers who deploy during an emergency. We set up temporary showers and bathrooms nearby, but better facilities are needed all-around.”
The VET’s budget covers salaries, supplies and maintenance, but not new equipment. Therefore, to realize his major goal of obtaining a new responder dorm trailer—which could cost up to $600,000 if properly furnished—Bissett must rely on donations. Another chief objective is to acquire small, truck-based units for use in the field. The VET’s current trailers—four ranging in length from 35 to 54 feet—are useful but don’t allow for the quick mobility Bissett desires. “The medical platforms I have in mind are smaller, but pack a big punch.”
The cost of these truck-based units ranges from $200,000 to $250,000. There are naming opportunities for both the responder dorm trailer and mobile units, as well as for another priority: a warehouse in College Station to house the unit’s equipment under one roof. Equipment is currently spread out in several campus locations.
Finally, the VET seeks endowment funding to secure its long-term future. There are opportunities for a director’s chair and for an operational endowment that could be used for equipment, supplies, training, course-related expenses and future growth of the team into other states in collaboration with partner veterinary schools across the nation. This $15 million endowment goal will provide permanent financial stability for the team.
In December 2016, the VET received a financial boost from the Banfield Foundation, a nonprofit arm of Banfield Pet Hospital. There are more than 900 Banfield Pet Hospitals across the country. The Foundation’s $175,000 gift will go toward the purchase of a truck-based unit.
“We so admire and respect what the VET does to prioritize response for pets in the aftermath of a disaster,” said Kim Van Syoc, executive director of the Banfield Foundation. “Their incredible work aligns with our mission, so it felt only natural to expand our disaster-relief efforts into Texas and surrounding communities by supporting this exceptional organization.”
Another recent gift of $50,000 from the Texas Pioneer Foundation will support the VET’s Community Connections Course. “Students who complete the course take what they learn to communities all over Texas and the country,” said Fred Markham, founding director of the Foundation, which expressly supports educational programs. “The program exemplifies Texas A&M’s legacy of service and leadership.”
Bissett couldn’t agree more. “Look at what Aggies do,” he said. “They lead by example, standing up when times are tough. Texas A&M’s commitment to service and leadership is what makes it better than any other university. We’re proud that the VET is part of that Aggie tradition.”
Endowed gifts of $25,000 or more will allow this program to exist in perpetuity and will support the program’s growth, reach and impact in times of distress, such as Hurricane Harvey.