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Paws and Claws Disaster Response Team

posted January 25th, 2014 by
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Out of the Central Oklahoma tornadoes came help for animals in future natural disasters

by Julie Alexander

Photography courtesy of Rausch Photography

In May of 2013, two Central Oklahoma towns were devastated when an outbreak of tornadoes struck the state. On May 19, an EF4 tornado hit Shawnee, and the following day, an EF5 tornado, estimated to be two miles wide, struck Moore.

Large swaths of both towns were obliterated, and more than 50 people were killed. Thousands of volunteers from the Red Cross, local churches and other agencies rushed to help the victims. Veteran animal rescuers Joe Beene and Carol Ames gathered together some supplies and a handful of volunteers and headed to Shawnee. Their goal was to help the four-legged victims of the storms.

“We saw a post on Facebook that they were seeking volunteers to go look for animals. So we and a couple of friends gathered a truck together and supplies and headed out there, and we ended up in the middle of nowhere,” Ames said. “We went to the Red Cross. They didn’t know about any coordinated effort, and we were basically sent from place to place. There was no coordination whatsoever. We were so heartbroken.”

The devastation was overwhelming. Finding an address where someone’s pet was missing was almost impossible, and they quickly discovered there was no coordinated effort to rescue animals. They did join a group of local residents and other people who were there to help, but after a brief search, the group realized searching was futile.

Despite traveling to both Shawnee and Moore that day, they were unable to rescue any animals. They returned to Kiefer disappointed they couldn’t help, but on the drive home the group had an idea. After several months of researching and educating themselves on disaster response, Beene and Ames started Paws and Claws Disaster Response Team.

Officially founded on October 2, 2013, the group’s mission is to “mitigate the loss of animal lives and facilitate the reunion of rescued animals with their families” according to their website, pawsandclawsdisasterresponse.org.

Relief efforts for human victims are well-coordinated and well-funded, but animal rescue groups who respond to disasters such as floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and wildfires do not coordinate with each other, Ames said. Owners of missing pets are usually left to find them on their own.

They both vividly recall the video of the elderly Moore woman looking for her dog in the shattered remains of her home the day after the tornado. During an interview with a local television station, the dog appeared from under the rubble much to the joy of its owner. It’s heartwarming moments like these that Paws and Claws hope to facilitate.

Ames, who serves as president, is a volunteer for the Tulsa SPCA and has rescued and fostered animals for many years. Beene, who is the director of field operations, is using his background in business to coordinate fundraising efforts and complete the necessary paperwork to establish Paws and Claws as a 501(c)(3) corporation.

Their goal is to have the resources and equipment to respond to disasters quickly and effectively. “We would like to raise enough funds and donations of all sorts to be able to be very prepared,” Ames said. “To be able to have the equipment needed to be able to do a really good job when we get out on the scene and to be really thorough and save lives—that’s what it’s all about.”

In addition to money and supplies, Ames said volunteers are the key to their success. All volunteers will undergo special disaster training that is required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The group is also working to establish relationships with groups such as the Red Cross, so when they are on the scene of a disaster, their efforts are coordinated and people looking for their pets have a resource to turn to for help. Local response organizations and government officials have been enthusiastic about the group’s plans, but there is still a lot Paws and Claws must do to be ready for the next emergency, Ames said.

“Initially, we will be getting a fifth wheel trailer that will be equipped with a triage basically. Something comparable to what you might find at a vet’s office,” Ames said. “Ultimately we would like a larger vehicle so that we can accommodate more animals in that emergency triage.”

Special equipment for volunteers will also be needed. Boots, gloves, even hard hats may be required when searching through rubble. When the group is fully funded, and they have all the necessary equipment, they will be on the site of disasters to search for lost pets. Found animals will be brought to the triage area to be assessed and treated if injured.

Ames said since pet owners may not have a home to return to, the group will provide temporary shelter for displaced pets. Lost animals will be scanned for microchips and returned to their owners as soon as possible. An online database of found animals will be created and animals will be held until the owners can be found.

“We want to have one central place and work with local media outlets and emergency responders to have an organized effort,” she said. Though Oklahoma has its fair share of disasters like tornadoes and flooding, Ames and Beene hope to make Paws and Claws a nationwide organization with equipment and volunteers across the country ready to help, much like the Red Cross. They also plan to respond to man-made disasters and even terrorism, according to Ames.

Though the group is only three months old, they have been busy drumming up support for their efforts locally. They held a fundraiser in November at the Riverwalk Crossing in Jenks to raise both money and awareness for their group. The event featured live music and art vendors, and several area rescue groups brought dogs available for adoption. They held a silent auction on their website just before Christmas, offering items such as gift certificates for doggy daycare, dog training, pet toys, Tulsa Oilers hockey packages and more.

As the organization grows, they will also reach out to area rescue groups to help with their efforts. Their goal is to return animals to their owners, but often in a disaster, an animal’s owner may never reclaim the pet. Since the organization does not have the capacity to keep animals long-term, area shelters and rescue groups will play a role in the effort too, Beene said.

“We plan to hold them for 24-72 hours, trying to find their owners,” he said. “Of course, some of them may be deceased. But then we will have to turn them over to the local shelter. We plan to work really close with the local rescue groups and shelters.”

Since the May tornadoes, they have not responded in an official capacity to disasters. Right now they are focusing on monetary donations to purchase a large truck or trailer for their triage. The group will eventually need crates for holding animals, leashes, dog beds, towels, blankets, food and other items.

Paws and Claws is also recruiting volunteers who are willing to be properly trained and can respond when disaster strikes. Currently, there are about 20 volunteers who meet and train regularly in Kiefer.

However, there was some good news for the group after the tornadoes. The day after their disappointing trip to rescue animals in Moore and Shawnee, another group of their friends drove to the area to help. They found and rescued three Labrador puppies in Shawnee. Ames hopes these three are the first of many four-legged victims they will help.

For more information about Paws and Claws, visit the website: www.pawsandclawsdisasterresponse.org . The group is also active on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. People interested in volunteering or donating can do so through their website, or donations can be sent to P.O. Box 968, Glenpool, OK 74033. Donations are tax deductible.