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Monday, Sep 01, 2014

Pinellas shelter plans critter crisis team


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In 2012, the Humane Society of Pinellas County helped treat and find homes for some of nearly 700 cats removed from a ranch in the North Florida city of Madison.

Animal welfare groups described the cats as neglected and living among diseased and deceased felines. Many of the surviving animals had respiratory ailments and eye infections, among other health problems.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals led a seizure, shelter and treatment effort, eventually asking the Pinellas group to take in some of the cats.

The combined effort was so successful that the ASPCA, as part of its mission to create more local disaster response teams, recently awarded the Humane Society an $8,000 grant.

"In the future our team will be able to help on the forefront of that situation," said Sarah Brown, executive director of the Humane Society of Pinellas.

The organization is seeking 80 volunteers for its team, which will respond to various situations, including helping to rescue animals in hoarding situations and those affected by hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Volunteers will receive training in field rescue, emergency sheltering, animal disease, first aid, CPR, animal behavior and animal handling. Though duties will vary with the circumstances, the basic response needs are the ability to document animals, handle them humanely, provide shelter and give them medical care.

The Humane Society of Pinellas will assist ASPCA efforts across the country as well as help with local situations.

"Our goal is that each community has what it needs and has a skill set and resources to handle what it needs locally," said Joel Lopez, director of planning and field operations for the ASPCA.

John Hohenstern, senior animal control officer for Pinellas County Animal Services, said the county already works with the Humane Society of Pinellas and thinks the new response team will be helpful.

"There are things that happen almost weekly with animal hoarders and cruelty, and it would be great to have extra help," he said. "And if we really get blasted by a hurricane, we're all going to need help."

Hohenstern said the county most often responds to cases of animal hoarding. This month, he said, a team donned gas masks to remove about 40 cats from a house that had "waste everywhere."

For the ASPCA, which handles large-scale disasters, natural disasters increasingly have caused problems, Lopez said.

Hurricane Sandy in October and a tornado that devastated Moore, Okla., in May have required major animal-rescue operations.

"Disaster season just kicked off several weeks ago, and we're anticipating that it will pick up," Lopez said.

With major hurricanes, responders search for injured and lost animals and take them in. People whose homes are destroyed or who lose electrical power might need to seek shelter, and many shelters don't allow animals. So the society and associated groups house those animals, too.

Storms and separation from their owners unnerve some animals. Many pets not only need medical attention but also behavioral and emotional help.

Volunteers help clean and feed the animals, check them for microchips and rabies tags and post lost-and-found signs.

Brown said she welcomes any volunteers who want to help animals and can follow directions. The first volunteer orientation is set for July 30; the training is free.

"In the future we want to be able to help with disasters," said Brown, the Humane Society of Pinellas' executive director.

The ASPCA has other disaster response teams in Florida and the Tampa area, including the Pinellas-based Bay Area Disaster Animal Response Team.

"Partners in those areas help each other," Lopez said. "And if ever in harm's way, and shelters will be impacted, we're there to support them and fill in any gaps they might have."

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