Euthanasia a rare but complicated issue in disasters

Texas authorities working on protocol surrounding practice since Hurricane Ike
Published on February 15, 2009
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Rescuers could not reach all the cattle battered by storm surges and stranded following Hurricane Ike's landfall in Texas last September.

Some animals were stuck in areas accessible only by airboats, and those vehicles were committed to the rescue of people and recovery of human remains, said Dr. Matt Cochran, emergency management veterinarian for the state of Texas.

Euthanasia was not commonly used on stranded animals following Ike, but Dr. Cochran said the commission has formed working groups to discuss protocol for its use in emergencies. The TAHC has been seeking input and help from law enforcement and landowners in what he described as a complicated issue that involves private property and the humane treatment of animals.

Use of euthanasia drew news media attention during the June 2008 flooding in Iowa, where tens of thousands of hogs and other large animals had been kept in areas that would later be hit by the rising waters. Law enforcement shot about two dozen hogs that had been rooting on levees.

Ann Garvey, state public health veterinarian for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said most animal-related issues caused by the flooding involved swine in the southern part of the state. She recalled euthanasia was considered only in incidents such as the one involving the hogs on levees.

Mass animal triage

Following Hurricane Ike, it was unclear who owned loose sick and stranded large animals, Dr. Cochran said. It was also impossible to have veterinarians assess each animal in the field, given the wide area of destruction.

The TAHC and other state personnel were not authorized to use gunshot euthanasia on animals, Dr. Cochran said, but they could recommend its use by law enforcement when officers were available. Landowners were also allowed to shoot trapped livestock, but some were hesitant because they did not know who owned the animals.

Barbiturates were administered by shelter personnel when needed for euthanasia of small animals at shelters, but it would have been risky for anyone to approach cattle to administer such drugs, Dr. Cochran said.

Many more cows roamed free or died than were stranded beyond help, Dr. Cochran said.

The TAHC staff members are well-versed at understanding when conditions of animals and their surroundings leave no other options but to recommend euthanasia, Dr. Cochran said. Responders with the commission will do all they can to help animals short of risking their own safety, he said, adding that part of providing humane treatment includes knowing not to leave animals to suffer.

Stray cow on Galveston Island
A stray cow walks among debris on Galveston Island last September.
Displaced cattle on Bolivar Peninsula
Displaced cattle feed on rolls of hay on the Bolivar Peninsula. Food and water were brought to the area to save cattle following Hurricane Ike.

The pending discussions on euthanasia protocols will include how to shorten the time between when TAHC staff members recommend euthanasia and when law enforcement can act on those recommendations, Dr. Cochran said.

Elbert Hutchins, executive director of the Texas VMA, said considerable effort was made to evacuate animals thought to be in the path of Hurricane Ike. The decision whether to save or euthanize animals was made on a case-by-case basis with input from owners.

"That in itself is a difficult situation when you can be talking about hundreds, perhaps thousands, of animals," Hutchins said. "And it's problematical because you don't always have a certain forecast for where that hurricane is going to make landfall."

Rescuers arriving after the hurricane's landfall typically waited until water receded to remove animals trapped by flooding, but they sometimes herded them out if the water was shallow and slow-moving, Hutchins said. The rescues were sometimes problematic because larger animals could not be removed by boats.

Rescuers tried to get water and food to animals in areas inundated with saltwater or chemical hazards, Hutchins said.

Public backlash to animal deaths

At December's Sixth Annual One Medicine Symposium in Durham, N.C., Dr. David Schmitt, Iowa state veterinarian, said flooding in June 2008 caused an estimated $4 billion in agricultural losses. Producers launched a concerted effort to evacuate animals before the levee broke, including about 18,000 swine held in buildings in the Oakville area in eastern Iowa.

Dr. Schmitt said swine producers removed all but about 4,000 animals in a half-dozen buildings, where they ended up opening the doors and setting the animals free. Those hogs were stranded on levees or drifted in the waters.

The pigs that were killed by law enforcement risked damaging the levees and establishing a feral swine population. Nevertheless, the officers' actions and subsequent news media coverage led to public backlash, Dr. Schmitt said, so he allowed nongovernmental organizations to take the remaining animals, despite having already filled out a request that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services depopulate the swine along the levees.

About 70 swine recovered live from the levees went to New York and Kansas. The organizations that took possession of the swine agreed not to allow the animals, which had been potentially contaminated by contact with sludge water, into market channels.

Dr. Schmitt said a USDA National Veterinary Stockpile contractor helped dispose of swine carcasses.

Casualties in Texas

Todd Staples, commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, said Hurricane Ike displaced between 15,000 and 20,000 livestock. Authorities disposed of about 1,400 carcasses, and thousands of animals were never found.

Estimates indicate the storm surge traveled up to 12 miles inland, contaminating freshwater, pastures, and cropland, Staples said. The water also devastated fences, corrals, and barns.

The property destruction led to cattle drowning, salt toxicosis risks to surviving animals, and potential carcass contamination of air and water.

"It was the right thing to do to step in and provide assistance to those animals and to the producers to secure their livelihood," Staples said. "It was a public safety and a public health issue as well as an animal welfare issue."

The loss for agricultural producers is estimated at $433 million, and agricultural recovery efforts could cost more than $900 million, Staples said. Business activity income losses are estimated at $93 million.

"For some producers, this storm ended their agricultural production and their livelihood as they know it," Staples said. "Their homes are gone, as well as their fences, corrals, and infrastructure. But many others will rebuild with help."

The AVMA Committee on Disaster and Emergency Issues planned at press time to discuss gaps in emergency preparedness and response surrounding livestock and natural disasters during its February meeting.

Destruction of fences was costly to the state's farmers, but it saved the lives of some animals that were able to move to higher ground, Hutchins said. The animals that remained trapped by manmade structures were at higher risk.

Liz Serca, then-executive director of the Texas State Animal Resource Team, said a complete tally of animal deaths may never be possible. Animal carcasses are mixed with debris from the storm surge, and "Nobody's sorting through that to get an accurate count," she said.

Rescuers performed triage from the air, determining which animals needed immediate help and which could wait, Dr. Cochran said. About 10,000 animals were rescued and taken to greener pastures in the north, in coordination among state agricultural agencies and cattle raisers.

For those animals that cannot be moved in such emergencies, Dr. Cochran wants guidelines that reconcile local regulations with what field responders can do when they see a stranded cow or group of cattle. He said decisions on euthanasia are easier at shelters for companion animals, where veterinarians are present, than in the field with large animals such as cattle.

Euthanasia panel reconvening

The AVMA Panel on Euthanasia is in the process of being reconvened. One of its working groups will consider questions of mass euthanasia and depopulation.