When livestock get in traffic accidents

Emergency preparedness and first responder training can make it easier to work with animals in emergencies


The sight lives in Trevor Coleman’s memory.

It is a horse standing untethered on a flat deck trailer being pulled with a pickup truck down a major highway during a forest fire.

“It was one of those things, just a head shaker,” said Coleman, fire chief for the Municipal District of Willow Creek.

Coleman, a firefighter instructor who is also trained in livestock emergency response, told the story while participating in a course on equine emergency preparedness. A recent session in Lethbridge was the last in a series of 10 held across the province organized by the Alberta Equestrian Federation.

Coleman’s tale is an example of what not to do in an emergency.

He has responded to many of Alberta’s most recent major fires, including the 2016 Fort McMurray fire. That’s where he and other firefighters saw a man intent on saving his friend’s horse after that friend had lost all his other possessions.

“This guy, by himself, he went and borrowed a flat deck trailer from one of the houses that didn’t get burned up,” said Coleman.

“He’s pulling out and he has this horse on top of the flat deck trailer, no sides, nothing on it and they’re going about 30 kilometres down the highway as we pull up on him and he’s grinning ear to ear.”

The story didn’t particularly surprise Jennifer Woods, a livestock handling specialist who gave instruction at the workshops.

She has been called to the scene of many emergencies and traffic accidents involving livestock and has seen the need for better training and response on the part of municipalities and others in charge of managing such events.

“You’re dealing with a disaster emergency and a livestock incident, and even though they’re the same event happening at the same time, they almost operate independent of each other,” said Woods.

“Even at a rolled trailer, you have the people dealing with the motor vehicle and you have the people dealing with the livestock.”

However, few first responders have experience in dealing with livestock, let alone animals that are stressed and injured. And when horses and their owners are involved, the owners rarely have knowledge or experience with disaster emergency response.

“Betsy in the field has a totally different personality when you flip her over in a trailer, and a lot of people aren’t used to working with animals in this environment,” said Woods.

Emergency preparedness and providing training to responders are the best ways to address these shortcomings, even though every accident or disaster will present its own challenges.

Woods has documented 415 commercial accidents involving livestock and has attended the scene of 11 livestock trailer accidents involving cattle, hogs and horses.

“My personal pet peeve? Too many people on the scene,” she said.

“Everybody wants to be involved in an animal incident, more so than in a people incident.”

Her list of common problems in accidents involving livestock includes:

  • lack of training and understanding of the situation
  • lack of understanding about distressed livestock behavior
  • failure to plan ahead
  • too many people on scene
  • lack of respect or understanding for chain of command
  • lack of co-ordinated communications on scene

During the workshop, Woods outlined things to think about when having to evacuate horses and other livestock in the event of flood, fire or other disaster.

Her list covered containment and housing, evacuation and transportation, biosecurity, animal identification, triage, euthanasia and disposal of dead stock.

The Alberta Equestrian Federation has compiled a book based on the workshop sessions — Alberta Equine Emergency Preparedness: Municipal Guidelines and Templates. It is available from the federation upon request.

Woods asked municipal representatives at each workshop whether they knew how many horses resided in their area. Very few do, she said, but having that knowledge can inform emergency evacuation needs and planning.

In fact, there are more than 300,000 horses in the province with the highest concentration in the area surrounding Edmonton.

Woods advised rural municipal first responders to buy and retain quick access to portable fence panels, which can be used in many different livestock emergencies.

“Portable panels, this is what people spend the most time trying to find,” she said, noting departments should have at least a dozen such panels at the ready.

“I’d rather see you spend money there than anywhere else.”

They also need to select a veterinarian willing to attend accident or disaster scenes and consider where livestock can be temporarily housed and how they will be watered and fed.

Woods said that during this year’s extensive fires in British Columbia, some horses had to be moved several times as fires continued to spread. In some cases people with horse trailers were making a business out of transporting horses from place to place, she said.

In such cases it is important to have a sign-in process at livestock evacuation centres to keep track of ownership.

“Somebody could bring in a 20-year-old horse and leave with a 10-year-old,” said Woods.

“In High River (during the 2013 flood), some of the shelters for pets, people went pet shopping. People actually had their pets stolen.”

Woods also said horse owners need to consider which of their animals have priority if quick and difficult choices must be made in, for example, a barn fire.

“Think about it ahead of time. Decide who goes. The most important ones, either emotionally or financially, put them at door of the barn,” she said.

“A lot of people put them in the middle of the barn because it’s the warmest. Your most important animals go at the door because you can only get a few animals out.”

First responders will rescue the animals that they can catch, she added.

“If that’s the old 25-year-old plug that’s worth ten bucks, if she goes on the trailer, then she gets evacuated.”

Owners should also be aware that horses will run back inside a burning building, so they must be contained once evacuated from such a situation.

Mikki Shatosky of the equestrian federation said the organization has 15 knowledgeable horse people on its team who can be called in the event of an emergency involving equines.

By incorporating equines into existing disaster plans, municipalities can:

  • increase public safety
  • improve efficiency of response
  • lessen the burden on resources during an emergency
  • positively affect the outcome for animals and their owners

Woods said horses require different consideration in emergency plans because in some jurisdictions they are not considered livestock.

As well, their owners are often emotionally attached and can have unrealistic expectations about evacuation and rescue efforts.

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