What I saw after Hurricane Ian as a vet in a pop-up clinic A Humane World
By Dr. Katherine Polak
Considering the dire need for veterinary services, the idea of establishing a pop-up veterinary clinic next to the HSUS food distribution point was born, so that the local community could access basic veterinary care. Kelly Donithan/The HSUS
In the weeks after Hurricane Ian devastated communities across Florida, our team coordinated the creation of a pet food distribution center and pop-up veterinary clinic offering free veterinary services in the parking lot of a regional library in Port Charlotte, in Florida. Dr. Katherine Polak, vice president of Companion Animals and Engagement for Humane Society International, who coincidentally is also a licensed veterinarian in Florida, made the trip to help establish a pop-up clinic, to meet the demand for services vets while local vet clinics were closed. In this guest blog, Dr. Polak tells us what it was like to provide much-needed care to this community.
When I arrived in Florida two weeks after Hurricane Ian, I didn’t know what to expect. I had thought that so many days after the storm that the demand for services might decrease. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Hurricane Ian devastated communities in Southwest Florida, affecting both people and animals. To help support pet owners during this crisis, the Humane Society of the United States has launched a pet food distribution initiative, parked in a library parking lot in Port Charlotte. The team distributed free pet food and supplies for dogs, cats, chickens, hamsters, rabbits and more. The need was astonishing: more than 500 cars passed by every day to come and get supplies.
As people walked through the distribution center, our animal rescue team learned that providing supplies only scratched the surface of what people needed for their animals. Many people have told our team that their pets are sick, injured and unable to reach a veterinarian. Most veterinary clinics in the area had been badly damaged and closed indefinitely. Given the damage to homes in the area, many people were also living in tents and in their cars with their pets, many of whom suffered from untreated illnesses, severe flea infestations and mats.
Given the dire need for veterinary services, the idea of establishing a pop-up veterinary clinic next to the food distribution point was born, so that the local community could access basic veterinary care. Because I am a licensed veterinarian in the state, I was in an ideal position to help rally local veterinary support, purchase supplies and medications, and get our clinic up and running. When I arrived, the first step was to set up a real clinic. It consisted mainly of several tents equipped with basic veterinary supplies. After a few calls to county officials explaining our plan, a text message was sent to residents announcing free veterinary care.
Almost immediately after the text message went out to the community about our pop-up vet clinic, we were inundated with people bringing in their sick and injured pets. At 8:30 a.m. every morning, a line formed in the parking lot of pet owners desperate to have their pets checked out by a veterinarian. We have decided to increase our capacity by issuing an urgent appeal for help (veterinarians, technicians and supplies) throughout the state to meet the demand. Fortunately, the Florida Veterinary Medical Association responded, quickly gathering a list of vets and techs willing to help.
We were initially limited in our resources of medicines and supplies, but we wanted to do more. These people and their animals have endured so much. We wanted them to have access not only to basic veterinary care for their animals, but also to the best possible care. For many people, their pets were all they had left..
After a bit of a fuss, we were up and running. We had coolers full of medicine and vaccine donations, a makeshift pharmacy and a preventative care station that happily provided the public with tick and flea preventative products for their pets. The cases of animals presenting to the clinic varied widely: some cats suffered from stress-induced urinary disorders and fractures. We saw a rabbit that refused to eat, a dog that was rescued after nearly drowning in a swimming pool, an orphaned baby squirrel, a chicken with a fractured wing. You name it, our pop-up vet clinic has seen it. On the second day of operation, we received more than 240 patients.
Many people were living in their cars and tents with their animals after their homes were destroyed. A woman arrived at the clinic in her van: inside were her eight cats and two dogs, all living together in the vehicle. She wanted the animals treated for fleas and vaccinated. And while some of the cases we saw were hurricane-related (lacerations, broken bones), many were also cases where these animals hadn’t seen a vet in a long time, if ever. Due to socio-economic barriers and lack of access to services, this was the very first opportunity for their beloved pets to seek care.
There was a huge demand for basic veterinary care, such as administering vaccinations and trimming nails, and we were happy to provide these services while veterinary clinics in the area remained closed. Some people were desperate to have their pets groomed. Although grooming is not routinely considered part of disaster medicine, many of these pets were now living in unsanitary environments when homes were flooded. We were able to do clip-and-cleans, to the best of our abilities, with little electricity and no running water. Not only was this important to the animals, but it also gave owners peace of mind that their animals would stay healthy and hopefully prepare that animal for a life of continued veterinary care.
The clinic has also provided a place where lost pets can be reunited with their owners. One of the last days we were there, a woman who had previously visited our clinic with her own dogs returned with an adorable Yorkie she had found loose on the highway. She immediately picked up this lost dog and brought it to us. Even though the Yorkie had matted fur and was covered in dirt and burrs, she had an anti-rabies tag and a collar: We knew she had a family somewhere, so we were quick to post pictures of the dog on the lost pet social media sites. Within hours, she was reunited with her owner, who had been looking for her since she escaped during the storm.
Now I’m back from helping with the response to Hurricane Ian, but my mind is still full of the hundreds of people and animals I encountered. In less than a week, we’ve treated over 881 patients and provided thousands more with flea, tick and heartworm preventative products to keep them healthy until veterinary services resume regular. As I reflect on the whole experience, I can’t help but think about how preventative type veterinary care after a disaster like Hurricane Ian is just as important as providing emergency care. , especially when the animals live in such close quarters to their people. Disasters like Hurricane Ian also reveal the lack of access to affordable veterinary care that already existed in many communities. That’s why initiatives that provide access to care for underserved communities, like our Pets for Life program and rural animal veterinary services, are so important. Clients at our pop-up clinic were literally breaking tears of joy, so grateful that we were able to get help for their animals and vaccinate their pets, something they had never been able to afford before.
In many cases, when people have lost everything, these pets are the only family they have left. Providing for this community really took a team effort. The Florida Veterinary Medical Association, Tampa Bay Veterinary Community, Animal Welfare League of Charlotte County, and Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue, to name a few, have been instrumental in achieving this goal. Thanks to their support, Charlotte County animals have received top-notch care from Florida’s top veterinarians. It was truly one of the most valuable experiences of my life to have been able to help this community of families and their pets in times of need.
You can support rescue efforts like this by donating to our Emergency Animal Relief Fund, which ensures our team can continue to answer the call in emergencies where, when and how. animals need us.
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Animal rescue and care