Successful animal rescue starts with plan

Good intentions can go seriously wrong if firefighters and veterinarians are ill equipped to handle emergency situations

TWIN BUTTE, Alta. — Seeing even a smattering of Rebecca Gimenez’s presentation on the rescue of large animals shows how easily things can go wrong due to ignorance, inadequate equipment and panic.

A horse dies after a lengthy rescue from deep mud. Another runs from would-be rescuers who don’t understand equine behaviour and later dies of exhaustion.

And in one particularly horrific video, a horse kicks a veterinarian as he tries to apply a brand, and the veterinarian dies minutes later from the force of the blow.

The images pull no punches, nor does Gimenez, president of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue Training Inc.

She gave a two-day workshop May 18-19 to emergency responders, firefighters and veterinarians, which was organized by Alberta Farm Animal Care.

Her presentation included numerous examples of large animals, primarily horses, caught in dangerous circumstances that required human assistance.

Photos and video of horses in mud holes, swamps, swimming pools and overturned trailers — and attempts to rescue them — were all presented and dissected by Gimenez.

She emphasized preparedness as the first course of action. She urged everyone in the class to meet their local firefighters and first responders and discuss emergency preparedness.

“If plan A doesn’t work, the alphabet has 25 other letters,” Gimenez said about the need to consider all rescue options.

When she and her ex-husband started their training company in Georgia in the 1990s, they focused on helping veterinarians deal with rescue.

“Then we realized the people that get the 911 calls are the firefighters, so we needed to start working with the firefighters, and the firefighters were very desperate for that information.”

The course grew over the years and now is presented in many countries to people with varying levels of experience in animal handling.

No statistics are kept on accidents that require large animal rescue, which sometimes makes it difficult for responders to make the case for training, said Gimenez.

However, responders in the United Kingdom have taken it seriously, and Canada, Alberta in particular, has taken steps to train personnel.

“Over 90 percent of the firefighters in the U.K. have now been trained in large animal technical rescue and part of the reason for that is they have so many horses and cattle that are in the U.K. that are out on the roads. They have people who still ride and drive horses on the roads,” she said.

“We have not been so serious about it in the United States. You guys are serious about it from the perspective of cattle.”

Southern Alberta firefighter Keith Rendell, who took the course, has been to two accidents involving overturned cattle liners.

They weren’t pretty.

“They were liners that fell right over and laid on their sides,” he said.

“One went over an approach, one hit some ice. It’s a lot of work.”

Some cattle had to be euthanized, while others died in the wreck.

“Usually when (the cattle trailers are) laying on their sides, you cut the roof right off of the liner, and then you lay the panels out into a pasture and let the cows run into the pasture or whatever you can do.”

The panels he mentioned are aboard one of Alberta’s 15 Emergency Livestock Handling Equipment Trailers. Alberta is the only province to have such units, which can be dispatched to emergencies involving livestock.

Gimenez said the biggest obstacles to successful animal rescue are:

  • frantic, distressed owners and bystanders
  • inexperienced response personnel
  • veterinarians who don’t workin co-operation with others on the scene

She also talked about the wisdom of allowing animals to extricate themselves from difficult situations by providing them with the means to do so.

Suggestions, depending on the situation, include:

  • remove obstacles
  • provide egress
  • build a ramp
  • use an assist device

As for elements of the perfect rescue, Gimenez has this list:

  • efficient and professional
  • enables self-rescue by the victim
  • employs appropriate equipment
  • incurs no injury to the victim
  • incurs no injury to rescuers or bystanders
  • is co-ordinated at all levels

Understanding animal behaviour is key to deciding on the right course of action, she said.

“I can’t really make you an expert at how to handle horses or cows or pigs here,” she said.

“I can show you some of the problems you can have with those different animals, but if you’re serious about learning those things, you have to go out and spend some time on a pig farm, on a cow farm, and that’s homework for you.”

Other Gimenez recommendations:

  • Veterinarians and animal health technicians should wear protective helmets when working with large animals, and it should become part of the culture.
  • Every horse trailer should have clearly visible reflective tape on the back.
  • Have a plan for what to do with the animal or animals once they are rescued or extricated.
  • Keep a reciprocating saw in the barn and another in the trailer to facilitate rescue or extrication.
  • Always get rescued animals checked by a veterinarian.

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