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Today’s session is about Red Paw, the emergency relief response organization for pets.
We have asked Jen to tell us a little about Red Paw, how she got started and some of the problems she must overcome on a daily basis. Here is Jen’s story.
Red Paw has been a work in progress for many years and a direct result my experiences on the fire ground. I was a Philadelphia Fire Fighter for seven years and an American Red Cross, Disaster Action Team responder for 8 years and the Philadelphia County Animal Response Team Coordinator for 6 years — time and time again, I’d go to a disaster scene and watch as pets were left with no organization to provide emergency assistance or care in the event of a fire, building collapse, gas leak, etc.
Two specific incidents sparked Red Paw’s birth. A few years ago, a two alarm fire in Center City resulted in the death of two dogs and a cat because there was not a procedure in place to help them. I was responding with the Red Cross and saw the owners carrying the dogs in their arms screaming for help, but no one was there to help them. I used my personal vehicle to rush them to Penn Veterinary Hospital (while the owners were giving them oxygen with equipment borrowed from a medic unit) but they later died.
The second incident occurred in January 2011 at a three alarm fire at an apartment complex in West Philly. Cats were being taken out of the building in laundry baskets and rushed to the shelter without crates or emergency vet care. Dozens of cats were trapped in the building for weeks afterwards with no procedure in place to help them get out.
Shortly after that fire, I brought my proposal for Red Paw to the American Red Cross — to work in conjunction with their responders when there are pets on scene. Six months later Red Paw was born and clearly the need On July 25th 2011 at midnight we officially began! Since then we’ve been called to assist close to 600 times in Southeastern PA and helped nearly 1000 displaced pets (http://redpawemergencyreliefteam.com/annual-results/)!
Red Paw’s first response was 5:30 in the morning, and we’d only been up and running for less than six hours when the phone rang. The American Red Cross was on the other line! The Bridge (their 24 hour emergency call center) staff person says, “Good morning Jen, we have a fire for you. Six Pit Bulls were displaced in North Philly. You can help right?” Now, I planned for six months before starting Red Paw, I talked to other orgs, rescues, animal businesses, vets and stakeholders. I thought I had all my bases covered, I had no idea!!
Prior to Red Paw there was no organization doing this in Philly, or anywhere in the country! This brought about several challenges! Not only were we a brand new non-profit org but we were also an emergency response organization (that no one had ever heard of and were unclear about what we actually did) and an animal rescue (but not a shelter, which confuses people). All three of those separately have their own challenges, together it’s like a whole other animal:)
Excited and slightly panicked about our first response ever, I said yes to the ARC dispatcher, jumped out of bed and ran to the computer. First things first. Put out a call through One Call Now (a tool used to send one message to multiple phones at the same time) to all of the rescues, facilities and volunteers who had agreed, during the planning process, to help us with emergency response when we started. Well, OCN was down, and I couldn’t get a call to go out! So it’s 5:30 in the morning, the Red Cross has just called to use our services for the first time, there are six displaced Pit Bulls, and I can’t get a message to my resources for help! Slight panic had turned into full blown panic!
Luckily, I had a few personal numbers in my phone of people who had said they were in from the beginning and wanted to help! So I started dialing. First up was Portia, from Central Bark Doggy Day Care, who immediately said, “Yes, we have room, bring them here.” Next up was a volunteer who I had worked with through Philly County Animal Response Team, and he was up and willing to meet me on scene.
As I rolled up to the fire dwelling the fire department vehicles were gone, and the first thing I saw was the Red Cross responder on-scene. This immediately made me feel better! I walked up to the owners and stated that I was from Red Paw and explained, “We are like the Red Cross for Animals, we are going to keep your dogs for you while you recover from the fire.” Next were some questions: “Are the dogs normally friendly with people? Are they friendly with other dogs? Are they spayed, neutered, and vaccinated?”
It turned out that two of the dogs had gotten into a fight during the fire due to fear and stress of what was happening and needed to be kept separate and probably needed some medical attention. None of them were s/n or vaccinated but they were normally friendly with people. Two of the dogs were just little puppies so that made things a bit easier, but the other four were big Pitties! One by one we got them situated in my car and the volunteer’s vehicle, and off to Central Bark we went.
This was one of those things I just did not consider in my planning phase of Red Paw! I did not consider the health and well begin of the pets we were brining in, outside of the health needs from the fire or disaster, of course. I guess I was a bit nieve, I just assumed people cared for their pets the way I care for mine! In fairness, I do not except others to sleep on the floor so as to not disturb their sleeping dogs who are covered in fleece blankets, snoring with their heads on pillows!:) But I did not plan for the amount of wellness exams and procedures the animals we assist need. So much so that we had to create a Wellness Coordinator position to handle them all!
One of our goals now is to return the pets to their families in better condition than we got them in! They all get check ups by vets, they get s/n (as long as the owner agrees), they get vaccinated, dewormed, flea medicine, bathed, groomed, nails trimmed,etc, whatever the animal needs to be healthy and happy while in our care.
Now, the reason I asked the clients the question, “Are they normally friendly?” was because, like people, pets all respond differently to stress. These guys spread the entire spectrum: the puppies, AJ and Taz, not phased at all; Phat Phat, the momma, was pretty good as well; Bishop, BoiBoi, and Kilo were very stressed out to the point that we almost couldn’t get them out of the vehicles and into their crates at CB! The thing about working with dogs, especially in stressful situations, is that you need to be patient, which is hard to do when it’s now 7:45 in the morning and you are about to be late for work! Luckily, the staff at CB was able to ease the stress and get everyone into their crates without issue. Once everyone was settled in, off to work I went.
Bishop, BoiBoi, Kilo, Phat Phat, AJ, and Taz spent the next four months at Central Bark, even though we say that we will only give clients 30-60 days of care for their animals. Our goal, however, is to reunite families, so we worked with them daily to keep them involved in their animals’ care and assist them in taking back their pets. They obviously loved these dogs but they were overwhelmed! Six Pit Bulls, six dogs of any breed, are a lot of work! We educated them on s/n and vaccinations, and we got all but Boi Boi spayed and neutered. We also worked with them on adopting out AJ and Taz, the puppies, and both went to amazingly loving homes. And most importantly, after many conversations with the family about surrendering vs keeping them, we were able to kept the other four together and reunited them with their family!
One of the biggest surprises for me personally and a challenge for the org is the “surrendered” animals we end up with. We do everything in our power to keep families together and reunite. We’ve had animals in our care for up to eight months! That is challenge number one because a lot of the time, especially for larger dogs surrendered to us or with us long term, we end up boarding them and have to pay for their long term housing, which can get very pricey! We adopt out all of our adoptables, ourselves, we do not bring them to shelters or give them to rescues. We do it all in house to take the burden off of the already burdened rescue groups and shelters.
When I started planning for Red Paw I did not take that aspect into consideration, I just never thought owners would not want their animals back, especially after everything we had gone through to keep them together!
This first response for Red Paw was a snowball effect that has not stopped! I planned for months and months, used my emergency response experience, my animal response experience, and pulled from the knowledge of other rescues, animal handlers, emergency response organizations and vets to make sure I addressed all issues before we began. There isn’t a day that goes by, almost three years later, that something doesn’t come up that I never planned for!!
To say this has been a learning experience would be an understatement! I set out to start an emergency response organization for pets, and Red Paw is that, but we turned out to be an animal rescue, an animal welfare organization, an adoption center and a human service resource! This has been, by far, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, and I was a Philadelphia Fire Fighter for 7 years! But it’s also the most rewarding and exciting thing as well! Red Paw provides a much-needed resource in the community, proven by how busy we have been! Fires will never not happen and people will always have pets. The people have the Fire Department and the American Red Cross and now the pets have Red Paw!
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