You've watched TV in awe as they wade through flood waters with a dog draped over their shoulders, navigate charred areas after a fire, search ravaged homes after hurricanes and tornadoes, or even arrive at a puppy mill, dog-fighting or hoarding situation to rescue the animals. The American Humane Association is there when animals need them and perhaps you'd like to be there, too. Do you have what it takes to be an AHA volunteer?
You'll need more than a passion for animals but that's a great place to start and if you're already involved in rescue and sheltering as a professional or volunteer, that experience will be valuable, too, but there are other qualities that are also important.
"I think our best volunteers are animal lovers, of course, but also have great people skills," says Tracy Speelhoffer, AHA rescuer and Red Star Animal Emergency Services trainer. "So much of what we do is helping and comforting people along with the animals. Being good at calming, reassuring, and just listening to people is critical. And of course, readiness to work is essential. The work is some of the most physically and emotionally demanding I've ever done. At the end of the day you're exhausted but it's a satisfying kind of exhaustion."
There are several steps you'll need to take to become a member of the AHA rescue team, beginning with attending the AHA Red Star Basic Animal Emergency Services training. This is a 16 hour class given over two full days in a classroom setting. This course trains you to assist during a disaster in your community and is the first step to becoming an AHA Red Star Animal Emergency Services volunteer at the national level. You'll receive hands-on training in safety, disaster response, large and small animal behavior, triage and field operations. You'll even participate in a mock shelter set-up where you'll need to work cooperatively with your fellow students as you would with fellow volunteers in the field.
With over 62% of American households now having one or more pets, AHA disaster rescues often involve hundreds of animals that need to be temporarily sheltered and cared for until their owners can be found or are able to get back to claim them. Many of the animals are often rendered homeless and will need permanent sheltering until finding a foster or home.
In legal cases like dog-fighting, hoarding, and puppy mills, those animals also must be removed to a safe location for temporary sheltering. AHA rescuers work closely with first responders, police, emergency managers, civic leaders and animal protection advocates.
The American Humane Association has been saving animals since 1916 when the organization was called upon by the War Department to help the animals used in WW1. The American Red Star Animal Relief Program was born of that alliance and sixty years later the AHA signed on with the Red Cross as one of its primary contacts for animal-related disaster relief. Since then AHA rescue teams have assisted in disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the Colorado wildfires, and the Joplin, MO tornado.
AHA Red Star trainers travel the country training animal welfare professionals as well as those who just love animals and want to make a difference in the event of an emergency. Some come from backgrounds in the Coast Guard and Search and Rescue and they serve in the field operations of disasters as well as training.
The AHA's network of staff and over 200 trained and ready volunteers across the U.S. can deploy within hours of a disaster. Volunteers are called upon via email after a disaster and once the AHA has been invited in to assist. Volunteers then respond if they are able to deploy. A deployment usually lasts 7-14 days and all expenses are paid by the AHA.
Although the AHA stresses safety and has Safety Officers in all areas, working conditions can be rough, as you can imagine. Trainer Tracy Speelhoffer's best advice is, "boots already broken in, and staying hydrated", when deployed on a rescue. But the rewards are huge. Tracy cites the case she worked responding to a horrible hoarding situation with 140 animals who were removed from the worst conditions the AHA veterinarian had ever seen. "Many of the dogs couldn't even walk from muscle atrophy due to being caged so long," she said. "They were all nervous wrecks but still very sweet. We kept taking them outside to stand in the grass and after a little while we could see a spark in them - they'd start sniffing around and noticing other dogs and birds. They'd wag their tails at us and soon it was amazing to see them come around so quickly and head off to rescues and shelters to find homes."
What could be more fulfilling than comforting an animal in its darkest moments and providing food, water and a clean bed in a safe, temporary shelter or best of all, reuniting the animal with its owner after both have been through a disaster?
Have you got what it takes to join this amazing team? If so, click here for the AHA website homepage and here for the information on the Red Star Basic Animal Emergency Services class. Take that first step to being a hero to animals. To become a national volunteer, you'll need to complete more steps after the class, such as 4 online FEMA classes and AHA applications and agreements.
No one wants a disaster of any type but if one strikes, the American Humane Association will be there for the animals. Will you?
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Watch the slideshow of the AHA in action.