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The patients may be furry, fuzzy or feathered

Emergency vets:
'You do what you have to do'

iconIn the January 20 shelter fire in Escondido, California, more than 100 animals were killed, but emergency veterinary response helped save at least 85, officials say. Click here to see some scenes from that fire.  

In this story:

'The animal-human bond'

'To fix an animal'


(CNN) -- "Three black cats. Three congestive heart failures. Three dogs hit by cars. We tend to see things in threes."

Chris Johnson, chief of staff at Westside Animal Emergency Clinic in Lithia Springs, Georgia, finds small patterns in the chaos.


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Source: American Veterinary Medical Association

"We have intense periods when we're very busy," he says. "At any one time I might see a puppy with Parvo (Parvovirus), a dog with an intestinal block, and an animal hit by a car."

The 31-year-old veterinarian says he's used to the adrenaline rush of a busy hospital. He may even be addicted to it.

When Johnson was a child he decided he wanted to treat sick animals for a living, and he says he's never veered from that conviction. He graduated from the University of Missouri School of Veterinary Medicine and spent one year working in the Detroit area before moving south.

In 1999, Johnson became chief of staff at the clinic in Lithia Springs, a suburb of sprawling Atlanta. There, he typically logs between 42 and 44 hours a week on the overnight shift.

During a typical shift, he says there are hours of eerie calm when staff members clean and Johnson usually catches a nap or surfs the Internet. Inevitably, though, the door buzzer goes off and a concerned, sometimes panicked owner hands over an injured pet. The patients may be furry, fuzzy or feathered, but the emergency is real.

"We triage," Johnson says, "or look at the most serious cases first." He carefully assesses each patient, asking questions of the owners and running tests. Sometimes he has to perform emergency surgeries or set broken limbs.


'The animal-human bond'

"You do what you have to do. You do what you can," says California-based veterinarian Gary Gallerstein.

Normally a day practitioner, Gallerstein received a phone call on a Saturday night in late January, a call he says he'll never forget. A fire was reported at the Escondido Humane Society shelter and he was asked to go to the scene.


When Gallerstein arrived he found fire crews frantically fighting flames that rapidly were enveloping the shelter.

"We didn't think there would be any animals alive," he admits.

But soon firefighters began bringing animals out of the building and Gallerstein began assessing which pets were in critical condition. He called his Acacia Animal Clinic in Escondido to set up a M*A*S*H-like unit to care for the most seriously injured.

"We treated 46 animals that night," he says. "The most common problems were, of course, smoke inhalation, burns and eye irritation. We treated rabbits, pigeons, python snakes, a few cats, dogs and a chinchilla."

More than 100 animals were killed in the blaze.

But nearly as many survived the tragedy, in part thanks to the fast work and vigilance of the firefighters on the scene and the emergency vet personnel.

"I've spent my whole career studying the human-animal bond," says Gallerstein, but I have underestimated it. So many people were touched by this disaster."


'To fix an animal'

Johnson agrees.

But it isn't always all blood and guts.

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He recalls the time an 8-foot albino python was rushed into the office with a serious problem.

"The snake had just eaten two mice and the smell of the mice must have gotten on an electric blanket," he says.

The reptile had swallowed about half of the blanket and its teeth were firmly gripping cloth.

Johnson cut away as much of the blanket as possible and painstakingly worked the rest out of the python's mouth.

"This isn't a Hallmark card, but it's nice to be able to fix an animal. I think that in emergency vet medicine you can never be proud. The one time you think you have it all together," he says, "something puts you in your place."


Lucky 'Flame' adopted after animal shelter fire
January 23, 2001
Deadly fire at California animal shelter
January 22, 2001

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)
Escondido Humane Society
National Animal Poison Control

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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