Emergency veterinary response continues in wake of Oklahoma tornado


State veterinarian manages effort, including disposal of mass equine casualties.

An 85-by-200-foot indoor arena once stood in this bare space at Celestial Acres equine sports facility in Moore, Okla. There were also four barns with stalls, horse walkers, turnouts and paddocks. A spokesman with the property that included Orr Family Farms confirmed that all employees and 34 horses survived the deadly tornado that devastated Moore on May 20. But the number of equine fatalities from the storm may be more than 50. (Photo courtesy of Orr Family Farm)

Nothing’s been easy since Monday’s EF5 tornado in Moore, Okla. Wednesday was no exception.

Triage continued for rescued pets at a makeshift station outside the Home Depot in town. And Rod Hall, DVM, Oklahoma state veterinarian, managed an incident command team that coordinated efforts between the triage workers and emergency shelters. He says the good news is that they’ve seen a drastic decrease in lost and injured pets. Fewer than 30 animals were brought through the triage center Wednesday. “We had over 100 the first night and yesterday,” Hall says of the 24 hours after the storm. “It appears that the stray dogs that are still alive—or that people had containment of—the majority of those have been accounted for.”

While the pace at the triage center slowed, the weight of the past 48 hours made Hall’s voice heavy on the phone. Like many others in Moore, he has slept little. His team spent Wednesday dealing with the grim task of disposing of bodies. “The place the tornado hit had a lot of horse farms,” Hall says. “Our people spent most of the day today removing and disposing of almost 100 horses.” The final count for the day was 91—at one location—with many more to go.

“As far as horses, I bet there were about 200 killed,” Hall says, though he estimates there could easily be more than that. His teams scoured the tornado’s path looking for dead animals along roadsides and on private properties, logging the location of each carcass with GPS for the disposal crew. They found approximately 40 carcasses Wednesday, including a small herd of 20 calves destroyed in the storm. The gruesome task continued Thursday.

With so many casualties, Hall says the state was left with two options for disposal: landfill or burying on property. One location facing that decision was Celestial Acres, an equine sports training facility located on the Orr Family Farm in Moore, where more than 100 dead horses were found. The site’s low elevation, along with the multiple buildings related to its agro-tourism business, made a landfill more feasible—and fortunately there was one not far away. “That really made the decision very easy,” Hall says. “It may have been less expensive to bury on site, but it wasn’t really an option.”

With other horse barns located nearby Celestial Acres and the tornado’s horrific level of destruction, it was impossible to know what barns the 100-plus dead animals originated from. Horses were flung from stables. Legs were shattered. Debris cut through thoroughbred bodies at nearly 200 miles per hour. “One hundred head—that’s just a lot of horses to bury,” Hall says, his voice trailing. It was confirmed that 34 horses from Celestial Acres survived, but the overall death toll was staggering.

“One of our inspectors helping with the disposal of the horses had pictures of the piles of those things—to actually see those horses dead and piled up, it almost made me cry,” Hall says, tightening his words. “The damage that’s been done to them … some of them died instantly, but some of them suffered terribly.” A lifetime of working with animals catches in his throat.

It’s been extremely difficult for everyone, Hall says. The majority of his team and volunteers grew up on farms or ranches and have devoted their lives to the care of animals. “We’re veterinarians or work with animals all the time,” he says. “Most of us are not animal rights activists, but we truly believe that we treat the animals under our care humanely and respect them.”

First-responder veterinarians not only had to cope with finding countless dead horses, they also witnessed terrible pain and suffering. They had to euthanize rather than treat many of the horses found alive after the storm. “It just makes us so sad,” Hall says. “It affects you and it really bothers you, but you’re out there doing what needs to be done. You can’t save all of them.” He says euthanasia was the best thing they could do for those horses. “It’s sad, but you know that you did the right thing,” Hall says. “That animal is better off than it was.”

Still, at the end of the day, it doesn’t make it any easier. “While you’re out there doing your job, you’re able to put the thoughts out of your mind,” he says. “At the end of the day, it starts to hit you.”

At times it’s hard for Hall to stay put in his command post instead of working in the field. “In a lot of ways, I’d like to be on the ground taking care of the animals,” he says. “I’m almost not working as hard as those people getting their hands dirty, sweating, working through lunch.” He says watching his fellow veterinarians, his team members and volunteers respond in this disaster has been the silver lining he needed.

In fact, area veterinarians were on site coordinating the emergency response right after the tornado lifted. “Our local veterinarians were there before we could get there. They have really done a wonderful job,” Hall says. “Some of them worked all night Monday night into the day Tuesday.”

And an overwhelming number of people from across the country—veterinarians, technicians, support staff—have offered their assistance as well. “It’s been great to have so many volunteers—way more than we could use,” Hall says. “I wish I could just thank every one of them individually—even the ones that didn’t get to come.”

He says the way everyone has pulled together has been inspiring. “We’re all busy, but when something like this happens, you just drop it and get the job done,” Hall says.

Hall hopes that now, three days after the storm, the worst is over. His team has sheltered 100 dogs and cats at the Oklahoma City Animal Shelter, 40 to 50 at the Animal Resource Center, 40 at the Cleveland County Fair Grounds and some at the Moore Animal Shelter. There are countless other pets at additional emergency shelter locations across the area as well.

The response is now moving from recovery to reuniting pets with their owners. Hall says several animals have already been reunited with their owners, thanks in large part to microchipping and Facebook. “I hope we can get that done with all of them,” he says.

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