An animal's best friend in disaster

Rescue team gives tips to Baltimore Zoo visitors on how to protect pets

October 28, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Somewhere amid the devastation of the World Trade Center, in between the stories of hard-driving rescue workers and families filled with heartache, there were the animals: hundreds of dogs and cats abandoned when their owners were forced to evacuate apartment houses near the disaster site or injured as a result of the attacks.

And then there were the search-and-rescue dogs at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, dozens of canines charged with finding the remains of victims from the mound of rubble recovered from the Manhattan disaster site.

Animal Planet Rescue was there for it all.

The 80-foot-long disaster relief vehicle that serves as a mobile veterinary hospital and shelter provided support to New York police and to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the days after Sept. 11. The team's duties ranged from finding plastic carriers and food bowls for abandoned pets to giving police the nylon harnesses they needed to work with their dogs.

They might not have been the most glamorous tasks, but they were still important, said Ben J. Drotar, who was at the disaster site in New York and brought the rescue unit to the Baltimore Zoo yesterday to educate visitors about how to protect animals during disasters.

"Whatever affects a person is going to affect an animal," said Drotar, director of emergency services with American Humane Services who travels with Animal Planet Rescue.

"If a disaster happens and it's dangerous for you, it's dangerous for our pets."

This was the rescue unit's first visit to Baltimore and its ninth stop on a 10-city national tour.

The more than 5,000 visitors to the zoo yesterday had the opportunity to walk through the vehicle and get a glimpse of all that it contains: a high-tech command center, three rescue rafts, a four-wheel-drive ambulance, living facilities for 12 rescue workers and a portable corral for horses and livestock, not to mention two chain saws and a half-dozen pooper-scoopers.

Visitors could also engage in a scavenger hunt, talk to veterinarian Dr. Holly Knor from the Animal Planet show Emergency Vets and watch a short film chronicling the rescue of dogs, cats, horses and even a pig from a recent flood.

"It was so moving," Karen Sawyer, a Gardenville mother and dog owner, said of the film. "These animals are helpless without you."

Animal Planet is a cable television network featuring animal-oriented programming that reaches more than 74 million homes. It is a favorite among many children, including brothers Layne and Tyler Dittmar of Lansdowne who count The Crocodile Hunter among their favorite shows.

The boys, who are 7 and 9, camped out Friday night at the zoo with their friend Dusty Lisiewski and his parents. They could be found in the center of the rescue unit dressed in their Halloween costumes eagerly collecting candy and information about caring for and protecting their numerous pets.

"I liked seeing the animals get saved," said Tyler, who has two birds, four dogs, a frog, a turtle, a hamster and two ferrets at home and, not surprisingly, wants to become a veterinarian.

Since it started in 1998, Animal Planet Rescue has saved more than 1,000 animals. Last year, the unit provided disaster relief to animals affected by wildfires in Los Alamos, N.M., and tornadoes in Georgia.

The Animal Planet Rescue Expo will be at the zoo today from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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