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Santa Rosa man leads animal-rescue efforts during disasters

Friday, October 12th, 2012 | Posted by

By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The suffering of animals who are beyond rescue would make the disaster work Dick Green takes on impossible for those without his fortitude.

ASPCA disaster preparedness chief Dick Green in Louisiana following Hurricane Isaac. (Courtesy of Dick Green)

But after attending to animals during dozens of catastrophes over the past decade, the Santa Rosa man says he’s “gotten very good at . . . seeing the bigger picture.”

It’s necessary sometimes to “get beyond the thing that is happening right in front of you,” and focus on the larger mission, he said.

It’s a requirement of his job as director of disaster response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

It’s also the lesson of his experience since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which he said demonstrated the value of collaboration and the need to reassess how animals fit into the nation’s disaster planning.

“I might be a little emotionally tough, just because of what I’ve seen,” said Green, who recently settled in Sonoma County from Spokane, Wash. “It’s not that I’m calloused. I think, you just acquire a broader view. And if you don’t, you don’t survive.”

A recent deployment in coastal Louisiana, where the storm surge that followed Hurricane Isaac brought severe flooding and misery to humans and animals alike, left Green with heartbreaking tales.

There was the horse that died chest-high in mud because its owner thought he would incur unwanted liability if Green’s team came to the animal’s aid.

A farmer who expected to lose most of his 75 cattle trapped for several days in mud and tainted floodwaters refused help, fearing intervention would jeopardize insurance reimbursements, Green said. The farmer ultimately agreed to have the cows euthanized where they stood. “It was heart-wrenching,” Green said.

And there were no dry eyes when Green’s rescue team had to pass by a cat treed high above the floodwaters because bringing it to safety would have taken too much time from the group’s larger mission.

“We have to prioritize,” Green said. “That’s the hardest part of my job. You do play God.”

But far from grim, Green, 60, is an upbeat, athletic man delighted to be close to his childhood roots on the North Coast, though his travel schedule limits the time he gets to spend here.

In his ASPCA post, he’s on call when disasters strike in the United States, jumping on a plane to help evacuate animals from harm’s way. He also plays an important role guiding emergency planning and animal rescue policy for the ASPCA and it partner agencies, requiring frequent coast-to-coast trips.

Green “is very much a pioneer in animal disaster response,” said Tim Rickey, head of the the ASPCA’s field investigations and response team.

“That’s not me hyping him because he’s on my team or with the organization. That is the reality,” Rickey said.

Raised in San Rafael until age 12, when he moved to Renton, Wash., Green was still a kid when he was first aided an animal in need, a tiny, lost German shepherd pup he met on his paper route. The dog, later named Silver, soon found a berth in Green’s canvas newspaper pouch and, when its owner couldn’t be located after several days, a new home, as well.

Green’s devotion to animal welfare blossomed as he earned a doctorate in human biomechanics and pursued a 27-year teaching career, mostly at the University of Puget Sound and Gonzaga University.

Along the way, he served as a volunteer emergency medical technician and then a volunteer firefighter for 13 years, acquiring valuable technical and swift-water rescue skills; served as president of his local Humane Society, and built and operated a high-volume spay/neuter clinic; volunteered in local emergency animal rescue operations; and fostered scores of rescue pets, adopting several dogs.

During a 1999 sabbatical from Gonzaga, he developed the first technical rescue curriculum for animals with the American Humane Association. Two years later, he left teaching for a two-year stint with the state Department of Public Health in emergency planning and bioterror disaster response planning.

The experiences made Green a natural fit, first for manager of emergency animal relief at the American Humane Association, then disaster relief manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and a year ago, his ASPCA post.

“This is really what my calling is,” Green said.

Green’s work has inserted him into many of the world’s largest disasters of the past decade: Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant failure in March 2011; the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti; tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka in 2004; hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Floyd, Irene, Gustav, Ike and Isaac; last year’s Mississippi River floods; and floods in India and Pakistan.

Each situation brought its own set of challenges and diplomatic hurdles reflecting the cultural values and economic realities of individual locations.

Often, the priority was working to save livestock ahead of pets, whose next meal depended on preserving the family’s livelihood, which in turn depended on the livestock’s survival.

In Japan, Green was dealing for the first time with the uncertainties of radiation exposure and decontamination — and unavoidable questions about what would happen if similar disaster befell one of the 104 plants of similar age and design in the United States, he said.

In Haiti, which he also visited for 18 months post-earthquake to offer veterinary care for the local animals, he confronted a volatile, sometimes violent environment in which his team’s safety was a constant concern.

Often, the heart’s desire to rescue many animals must be subdued because a state or nation’s economic priority is saving fewer, more valuable creatures.

The work means “you’re on a definite roller coaster, where you have your highs and your lows,” Green said.

But there is reward in the many thousands of animals plucked from floodwaters or rooftops, saved from exposure to toxic runoff, reunited with their families.

“Those are great stories,” Green said, “and they do keep you going.”

It was Katrina and the 10,000 animals left in dire circumstances — either because they’d been abandoned by humans fleeing for safety or because their owners stayed with them in harm’s way — that altered the landscape of animal rescue work and Green’s life.

The scale of the human tragedy drew the world’s spotlight. But it also opened a window onto the need to plan for animal evacuations and shelters, and to coordinate rescue operations in a manner that ensured animals could be tracked and reunited with their owners.

Some 7,500 animals from New Orleans, mostly dogs and cats, moved through a single shelter operation under Green’s supervision, forcing multiple agencies accustomed to working independently to collaborate with one another and with government agencies.

Forty-seven days dealing with Katrina’s aftermath put Green in direct communication with leaders in the larger emergency response community, enabling him just a few months later to establish the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition, whose members include most of the nation’s major animal emergency response organizations.

Planning that permits people to evacuate with their animals and empowers individual communities to respond to crises will be increasingly important in future disasters, Green said.

“As a nation we’ve got such tremendous momentum right now, and I really do think that we’re going to continue to collaborate and cooperate at all levels for the disasters that are coming our way,” he said. “I’m incredibly optimistic, and it’s been an incredible thrill to be part of that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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Ann Hutchinson is our Santa Rosa correspondent.
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