Kathy Moran, DOG DAZE (The Philippine Star)

Being prepared for a disaster is not an easy thing. I guess it’s because we also like to believe that we are never going to get hit by one.

So, unless a disaster strikes, we — or perhaps, I more often than not — take preparations for granted.

Proof positive of this is how I often ignore the fire drills that hotels conduct once in a while.

I remember being on a ship, and one of the requirements for all passengers was to attend the drill on how to swim to safety in case of an accident. Well, I did attend the drill, but I wasn’t listening. Same goes for plane rides, I guess. Really, how often have we heard the safety instructions given, and let it float in one ear and out the other?

But the typhoons that struck our country during the last quarter of 2009, starting with Ondoy in September, showed just how unprepared we were in terms of rescue operations – not just for people, but for animals as well.

 I was told by Philippine Animal Welfare Society director Anna Cabrea how PAWS, international animal welfare organizations and other rescue groups had to rent or borrow boats in order to conduct operations in flooded areas.

“It was only the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) rescue team that had some of the things needed for a rescue,” quipped Anna. “They had the dry suits that enabled them to wade into the flooded areas without coming into contact with bacteria-infested waters.”

But the PAWS volunteers who have already undergone rescue training, were ready when their services were needed. This was because PAWS volunteers May Felix, David Arceo and Wilford Almoro, together with Feathered Friend Foundation’s Nielsen Donato and Palawan Animal Welfare’s Danilo Hicetas, attended the IFAW Water Rescue Training in Java in December of 2008.

It was because the attendees “echoed” the seminar to fellow volunteers that the PAWS Animal Rescue and Disaster Relief Team was formed and mobilized within a few days after the devastating storm Ondoy hit Manila in September 2009.

There were lots of animals that were rescued because of the efforts of PAWS and other animal welfare groups. Anna proudly informed me that 43 dogs, five cats, one turtle, one python and two ducks were rescued and brought to the PAWS Animal Shelter. These animals were given medical care and shelter. Efforts were also made to contact their guardians who evacuated the affected animals. Of these, only five dogs have not yet been re-homed or reunited with their guardians.

Over a ton of dog food and 100 kilos of farm animal feed were distributed by PAWS and IFAW in the disaster-stricken areas of Pasig, Marikina, Laguna and Pangasinan.

Anna added, “IFAW saw the need to train more people for disasters as the Philippines is listed as one of the hotspots for the occurrence of natural calamities all over the world.”

“The way we see it is that, for every person that we train, IFAW saves hundreds of dollars in disaster-relief expenses,” said Dick Green, IFAW’s disaster relief manager. “This is why we partnered with PAWS to conduct a debrief and water rescue training in Manila.”

This is Green’s third trip to the Philippines. He was here conducting rescue operations during Typhoon Ondoy and again during the Mayon Volcano eruption, to set up a possible evacuation center for both farm and companion animals in Albay City.

Dick came from disaster relief work in Haiti to attend the Philippine Veterinary Medical Association convention in Naga City to talk about animal rescues in times of disasters.

During the water rescue seminar conducted by Green, participants were asked for their views on what went well during the Ondoy Disaster-Relief operations. One insight was that media was instrumental in bringing attention to the plight of animals that needed rescue. The presence of local animal lovers who quickly donated pet food, fluids, vaccines and other medical supplies to the rescued animals was also noted.

An item that needs to be improved, though, is the coordination of government agencies and veterinary groups so that the NGOs’ rescue operations could benefit and capitalize on the government’s and professional groups’ strengths and resources.

Action plans were immediately drawn up with three groups being assigned the tasks to improve cooperation and coordination, getting more access to resources and getting more access to training.

During the two-day water-rescue training, Dr. Dick Green taught the participants the basic skills on how to throw, row and go.

For throwing, participants developed skills in sending out a rescue line as accurately and as effectively as possible. Inflating rescue boats and learning to maneuver these boats through rowing was the next topic. Finally, for rescue volunteers who could swim, learning how to go into the water to try to save the animal or person and bring him into the boat was the last and most difficult lesson.

Thirty-five participants joined from various local government units and government agencies like the Bureau of Animal Industry-Animal Welfare Division – represented by its second highest official, Assistant Director Victor Atienza; and from the veterinary offices of Albay, Antipolo City, Marikina City/Marikina 161, Quezon City, Laguna and Sultan Kudarat. Animal welfare groups like PETA Asia Pacific, Animal Kingdom Foundation, CARA, Feathered Friends Foundation/Wildlife Park, and SAWS (Strike Animal Welfare Society) of Cavite participated in the experience.

During the water rescue session, animal welfare groups adhered to the “no animals harmed” phrase by using stuffed toy animals — not actual dogs — as mock victims.

Marikina City veterinarian Dr. Manuel Carlos expressed happiness that the sessions were held in the nearby areas like the university pool in UP and in the Marikina Sports Park. “This is truly going to be very useful to all of us when the time comes,” he stated.

Dr. Carlos invited the rescue team for further swim training with the Marikina 161 Rescue Team at the Marikina Sports Park pool.

“Hopefully, we won’t have any disasters in the coming years,” added Anna. “But if they do strike, we are now more prepared to conduct rescue operations.”