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First aid groups treat Haiti's injured animals

By Daphne Sashin, for CNN
  • Groups say animals are lowest priority in aftermath of Haiti's earthquake
  • For the first time, the nation has non-profit animal welfare organizations
  • They have treated tens of thousands of animals since the January disaster
  • One group plans to build an animal care and veterinary training center

(CNN) -- More than six months since the earthquake in Haiti, family dogs and pigs paw through garbage and rubble in search of food, putting them at risk of infections, abscesses and parasites, according to animal welfare groups.

Owners want to help their pets and livestock, but they have little to give. With 1.5 million people still living in tents and the nation in the middle of hurricane season, animals are the lowest priority, animal rescue groups say.

Despite this, tens of thousands of animals have been treated while a public service campaign features a Creole-speaking dog telling families to include their animals in evacuation plans.

"The animal situation is only a reflection of the people's situation," Gerardo Huertas, of the UK-based World Society for the Protection of Animals, told CNN from Costa Rica.

"They live together. Until the whole shelter situation resolves, all you can do is help them with little veterinary support that we can provide," added Huertas, the society's Director of Disaster Management for the Americas.

But animal welfare groups are hopeful that in time they can actually give the nation and its people something it didn't have before the earthquake -- equipment, training and an awareness that animal welfare is critical to their own survival.

"Often in disasters we try and only deal with the problems caused by the disaster and not the underlying problems ... but Haiti was a special case," said Ian Robinson, Emergency Relief Program Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, based in Massachusetts.

The animal situation is only a reflection of the people's situation
--Gerardo Huertas, World Society for the Protection of Animals

"To put it back like it was before the earthquake wasn't good enough."

There wasn't a single animal welfare organization in Haiti before the earthquake. The government was focused on preventing the spread of animal-to-human diseases like anthrax, rabies and classical swine fever.

"Animal welfare is a new concept in Haiti," said Max Millien, Director of Animal Health at the Haiti Ministry of Agriculture.

"The children have to start to understand ... if you treat the animals well, that's a way to protect yourself."

Robinson and Millien recently presented their observations at the annual American Veterinary Medical Association conference, in Atlanta, Georgia.

The earthquake damaged the buildings that held vaccines for rabies, heartworm and other diseases. Vets lacked supplies. International volunteers struggled to get around the country.

As for the animals themselves, hundreds were injured. Some of them had wounds caused by the quake or from having to find food in dumps. Others had infections and needed immediate treatment.

Days after the earthquake, the two non-profits created The Animal Relief Coalition for Haiti (ARCH), with a dozen other animal rescue groups to provide more than $1.1 million in aid to the Haitian government over the next year, including:

• A team of Haitian vets to reach the hardest hit areas with antibiotics, vaccinations and other treatments for animals that in many cases had never been seen by a doctor. Since January, the ARCH mobile clinic has treated 30,000 pigs, goats, dogs, cats and other animals.

• Solar-powered freezers and refrigerators to store temperature-sensitive vaccines in rural areas without electricity, along with coolers that will fit on the back of motorcycles, horses or bicycles for mobile veterinarians.

• Haiti's first census of dogs and cats to determine the level of care they are receiving, people's attitudes toward companion animals and the risk of rabies and other diseases to humans.

• A public awareness campaign to educate families about disaster planning. Last month, public-service announcements began airing a speaking dog telling families to take them along if they have to evacuate.

"Any emergency plan is better than no plan," Huertas said. "We're just asking them to include their pets."

Separately, The Christian Veterinary Mission has promised laptops and projectors for mobile veterinarians to give presentations on animal care.

In addition, Humane Society International has spent $400,000 in Haiti and pledged more than $1 million over the next five years. It has begun planning an animal care and veterinary training center in Croix-des-Bouquets and is also working to establish spay-neuter and vaccine clinics.

"I do consider the earthquake as an opportunity," Millien said. "We have a lot of promises ... I hope the situation will be better than before."