Story By Amy Geiszler-Jones Photographed By Madison Ham
With tragedies, sometimes there are silver linings. When an EF-5 tornado hit Greensburg 10 years ago, a large number of animals were displaced when 95 percent of the Kansas town was destroyed. Sadly, not many of the pets were reunited with their owners.
That disaster brought to fruition, however, an idea that had been considered by several Kansas veterinarians a few years before: a statewide animal response team, or what Wichita vet Dr. Christen Skaer calls a “doggie and cat Red Cross,” to respond to catastrophic events that impact humans and their pets.
The Kansas State Animal Response Team formed in 2008, basing its creation on the first such statewide model created in 1999 in North Carolina. In 2004, Kansas veterinarians had started having discussions with disaster preparedness and emergency management folks in the state about an animal response team. The aftermath of the Greensburg tornado was a real-life lesson that caring for and reuniting and rehoming pets is a necessary part of responding to disasters.
Through the efforts of the Kansas State Animal Response Team, about 15 Kansas counties, including Sedgwick County, have trained first response teams for pets displaced by disasters. Skaer helped head up the creation of both the state and Sedgwick County teams.
For Skaer, the Greensburg disaster also brought a new family member.
“My brother is from Greensburg,” said Skaer, who spent nine days in the Kansas town helping care for the displaced animals. Her father, Dr. William Skaer – who founded Skaer Veterinary Clinic in 1971 – adopted an unclaimed dog. The fact that Skaer claims Radar – along with her parents’ other two dogs – as a sibling gives one an idea of just how deeply she considers the bond between a pet and its human family. Skaer has a human sister, too, who works as a nurse at Wesley Medical Center.
Skaer, who joined her dad’s practice nearly 20 years ago and has since assumed ownership of it, is a well-respected vet in animal care circles, known for her compassion for animals. She won the 2008 Kansas Veterinary of the Year Award, based in large part because of her involvement in creating the Kansas response team. The team also has created the Animal Response Volunteer Leadership Award in her name.
The Kansas State Animal Response Team, or KS SART, is responsible for developing a coalition of trained local volunteers who spread the word of disaster preparedness and handle emergency responses, according to its website.
“We are not the responders; we train the responders,” explains Skaer. Volunteers are called into action through government emergency management officials. Like the American Red Cross does for humans, the animal response team sets up shelters to house and comfort animals who’ve lost their homes. Vets are on hand to handle injuries and provide any other comfort measures. Earlier this year, the state team received an $11,500 grant from the ASPCA for a disaster response trailer with enough sheltering supplies to set up a temporary animal shelter at a moment’s notice.
KS SART has seven regional response teams, and within those regions, some counties also have designated animal response teams. The Sedgwick County Animal Response Team, or SCART, falls within the the state’s south-east region.
Locally, response teams have been called to help in the aftermath of the 2012 Oaklawn tornado and flooding in Mulvane last year.
Volunteers are always needed to help in two different ways: Community volunteers go to schools, churches and other local groups to teach kids and adults about disaster preparedness plans for humans and pets, while disaster response volunteers are the boots on the ground during a disaster. The responders undergo extensive training, including learning first aid for humans and animals and taking FEMA classes and classes dealing with comfort and other psychological effects of responding to a disaster.
Skaer’s clinic also holds free disaster preparedness classes to help raise awareness and educate pet owners on the importance of including plans for their pets during emergencies.
Skaer recommends following the guidelines set by KS SART’s PET (Pets Evacuate, Too) project and practicing with pets, just as you would with children and family members. For example, train your pets to go into the basement or an emergency shelter to take cover so you don’t struggle to get them safe during an actual tornado warning.
“If every pet owner had a plan and practiced that plan, we wouldn’t have a need for this job,” Skaer said.