2010-04-01 / Local & State

County Teams Ready To Rescue Pets Across PA

By Richard Robbins PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Chris Vibostak was listening to the emergency scanner at her Fayette County home when she heard something that gave her a start: Some farm cows had escaped their pastures and were loose on the road.

“I thought to myself, ‘I wish we were up and running. That’s just right for us.’’’

Vibostak, of Luzerne Township, is coordinator of the county’s Animal Response Team, or CART, part of a nonprofit statewide system that receives $400,000 in annual funding from the Department of Homeland Security for operations and equipment.

The goal of the teams – there’s one in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties – is to be on call when emergencies strike and animals are involved.

“Animal emergencies create dangers for animals and their owners,’’ said Joel Hersh, state system coordinator. “Pets are the No. 1 reason people return to their homes before local authorities have declared it safe to do so, risking lives in the effort to save beloved pets.’’

Hurricane Katrina was a galvanizing event for animal rescue and response. After the devastating floods, Congress passed a measure that reimburses county teams for household pet rescue activities during federal disaster emergencies. Some people dubbed the measure the “No Animal Left Behind Act.’’

During the flooding threat earlier this month, team volunteers in Allegheny County set up an emergency animal shelter at the Undercliff Volunteer Fire Department in Shaler. The shelter included nine dog cages and three cat cages, as well as a camera. Regulations call for volunteers to photograph the animal, as well as the owner when possible, for identification purposes.

Pat McKenty, Allegheny County coordinator, said volunteers were ready to set up shelters in five other locations. However, the flood waters never materialized and the shelters were not needed.

Shirl Ransley, a volunteer from McCandless, said the experience showed the need for “tons of volunteers.’’ She said four people at most were involved during the recent flood threat, while McKenty put the number at seven.

Hersh said recruitment is “a never-ending challenge’’ for the disaster teams, which are 100 percent volunteer-dependent and spring into action only on the call of emergency management personnel.

“In today’s society, it’s hard to get people to commit,’’ McKenty said.One problem is that a county team may go months, even years, without an emergency, McKenty explained. Boredom sets in and volunteers drift away, she said.

In 2009, Pennsylvania teams were dispatched to 60 emergency situations. None were in the Pittsburgh region, Hersh said.

Lori Mozina-Ogurchak, the coordinator in Westmoreland County, said one possible reason volunteers aren’t called out more often is that teams have not maintained close ties with county emergency officials. She said she hopes to change that as she takes over from the late Elaine Gower, a former county humane officer who became ill just as she took on the role three years ago.

Since “starting from scratch’’ in January, Mozina- Ogurchak said she has been able to recruit 25 volunteers for Westmoreland.

Vibostak said recruiting has been difficult because of the program’s low profile. “No one’s heard of us. I talk to fire departments, and they say they’ve never heard of us.’’

Kathi Elder, a team volunteer in Indiana County, said she learned of the effort about four years ago. “I thought rescue,’’ she said. “But it’s not so much rescue. It’s responding to animals in need.’’

Elder said the mandatory training for volunteers can be rigorous. It includes training in hazardous materials training and emergency medical treatment for animals of all sizes.

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