The Haiti Earthquake and the International Animal Welfare Response

11/01/2012 22:39 GMT | Updated 12/03/2012 09:12 GMT

In the early 19th century the very idea of humanity to animals was unfashionable and virtually unheard of. On Wednesday 16 June 1824, 22 men came together in a coffee house in south east London to create the SPCA, which in 1840 became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Organised animal welfare started there and then.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, has no animal welfare organisation permanently present.

At just before 5pm (local time) on the 12 January 2010 a massive and shallow 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck very close to the capital city of Port-Au-Prince which had a population of approximately one million people. The earthquake caused terrible devastation especially in the deprived and poorly built areas of the city and an approximate 240,000 people lost their lives as a direct result of this natural disaster and the appalling aftermath. Millions lost their homes and the way of life in this already struggling country was shattered.

International aid agencies and governments quickly poured human aid relief into the country and once the logistical problems were overcome, this aid reached those who so desperately needed it.

The numbers of dead, injured and dispossessed are difficult for most people to comprehend and it is only when you hear the personal stories of individuals do you begin to understand the true and shocking impact this disaster had on the lives of those living in Haiti.

Soon after the earthquake the Haitian Government outlined the clear and immediate need for animal welfare professionals to assist the country. Two international animal welfare agencies, World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), were asked to provide animal aid for the many animals in the country. These two organisations formed a coalition for other organisations to join to combine efforts, expertise and resources to respond to the disaster, such was the magnitude of the problem. The coalition, called the Animal Relief Coalition for Haiti (ARCH), comprised of more than 20 of the world's leading animal welfare groups and was the only coalition that set off to provide relief for the animal survivors in Haiti and address the threat of disease spreading from animals to humans. The RSPCA played a key role in the coalition.

The coalition had a number of agreed targets including the creation and deployment of a mobile veterinary clinic to serve the area of Port-au-Prince as well as other quake-impacted areas like Carrefour and Leogane.

The RSPCA was requested to send an interim project manager to oversee the clinic and other projects within the strategy for helping the animals and therefore the people of Haiti.

In early March 2010 Chief Superintendent Kevin Degenhard was the first RSPCA representative to arrive in the country, taking over the project management from the initial WSPA manager, Gerardo Huertas.

Kevin, a good friend of mine and part of the RSPCA's Inspectorate training team who trained me way back in 1996, requested that two officers join him to provide logistical evaluation, support and training to the already active Haitian veterinary and veterinary assistant team running the mobile clinic. Myself and Inspector Carroll Lamport were selected to provide the support.

This was to be a remarkable trip ....

On Saturday 6 March, Carroll and I departed the UK and on Sunday we left Miami to fly down to Port-Au-Prince. The plane was mostly full of staff and volunteers from either non-government aid organisations or religious aid groups. We were the only animal welfare representatives and caused quite a lot of positive interest among the other passengers. Our role would be to provide 'hands on' animal handling and welfare advice for the team, evaluate the work of the clinic and then design and provide training to assist the clinic to be as efficient as possible in the provision of animal welfare. I also had the responsibility to record the ongoing work in photos, film and blogs back to the UK.

As we flew into Port-Au-Prince you could see the devastation across the city and I was also shocked by the amount of deforestation across the region, it was almost total due to the population felling trees to use for fuel.

Kevin met us at the airport and it was only as we stepped out of the partly-refurbished building in to the road did we truly step into what felt like a third world country. Just before Kevin had arrived the coalition had secured accommodation for staff at the home of Dr Francois Thomas (Franco), a veterinary surgeon working for the Haitian government, and a neighbouring house. These houses are in the mountains to the south of the city centre and the long car journey from the airport through the city was to be my first experience of an earthquake disaster zone.

Everywhere there were thousands of empty water and food aid cartons and wrappers, an impact I had not considered before.

As we made our way through the busy, hectic and broken roads I saw the animals living among the people of the city. A dog being carried by a child, piglets rummaging through rubbish, a goat tied to a post and cattle loose in the road.

Collapsed building after collapsed building. The city centre area consisted mostly of piles of rubble where large buildings had been containing thousands of people at the time the quake struck. I noticed that many of the collapsed buildings had been schools and I thought of how my own children would feel if their school had been utterly destroyed.

We drove past large tented camps where the surviving city dwellers had now taken refuge. I recognised logos on tents from organisations such as Medecins San Frontieres, UNHCR, Rotary International and ShelterBox. It was good to see the results of donations from people elsewhere in the world getting to where they were needed.

As we started to climb out of the city and up into the outlying area, the damage became far less until we reached Franco's house in an area which seemed untouched. As I would come to understand, this demarcation was not only geographical but also emphasised the gulf between those people who 'have' and those who do not.

Later we met with the ARCH clinic team. A group of vets and assistants who became and are still friends. Neilan, Charles, Junior, Wilner, Thomas, Wesley, Seide, Joe, Brice and the 'joker' of the group Guiteau. Although my French is poor and their main language is Haitian Creole we were able to communicate reasonably well and Google Translate on my BlackBerry came in very useful. I would where possible travel with the team to the clinic location - always a lively journey. I got to know the team and some of their stories. All had lost either family or close friends and most had lost their homes. Their individual stories of the events of the 12 January shocked me and also gave me a sense of appreciation for my life back home.

Each day the team would meet at Franco's house and then head off to the first location. The location of the clinics was worked out beforehand and one of the team would ride around the area, the day before, using a megaphone to alert the people that the veterinary clinic would come to help their animals on the next day. It seemed a simple but effective process.

The first location I went to with Carroll, Kevin and the team was a semi rural location, just outside the city near a village called Damien. We set up in the shade of some trees and very quickly the queue of people bringing their animals grew. Dogs, cats, pigs, cattle, horses and goats were the main types of animals brought. All were vaccinated, treated for injuries if necessary and de-wormed where suitable. What I realised after a short while was that close to where we had set up was a refugee camp. People were arriving every day that had lost everything in Port-Au-Prince and they were setting up a makeshift camp of branches, twigs and sheets of plastic. No aid tents had reached this location. Many of these people had brought their animals from the city and now needed our help.

There was genuine compassion towards their animals from the people bringing them to the clinic. The animals were not only seen as possessions, there were pets and companions as well as the livestock. Our presence was warmly welcomed by all and the animal care very much appreciated.

Carroll spent much time showing the vet team some handling techniques for the more lively dogs as well as helping with the steady queue of people and animals. We both observed how the team worked so we could consider how to improve the process with training and guidance. We were asked to walk to a location just nearby to vaccinate a smallholders collection of piglets. The ensuing catching and vaccination process caused much hilarity as the piglets proved very hard to catch, especially without some 'pig boards'.

This was the first of a number of visits we made with the clinic throughout the Port-Au-Prince area. At all the locations we were struck by the warmth and care shown towards the animals by the people bringing them for treatment.

Carroll lead the development of the training we were to provide the team and once devised we ran a morning training session on the processes and also new equipment we had brought with us. The team greatly enjoyed and appreciated this investment in them and their work. The process of Carroll speaking and Franco translating his suggestions into Haitian Creole was much appreciated and also sometimes highly amusing.

The morning of our last day was spent at a clinic located within the city. Again many people brought their animals for treatment and we also had quite a large group of spectators. We watched as the team put into action the new procedures and processes and all agreed they assisted with the smooth running of the operation. I distinctly remember, just before Carroll and I had to leave for the airport, one young very shy girl bringing her much loved white and tabby kitten for vaccination and treatment. She held it in her arms while one of the team checked it over and as it was old enough gave it some flea and worming treatment as well as vaccination. She was really very shy indeed, but she knew that it was the right thing to do for her pet. This one moment gave me the most hope for the animals and people of this beleaguered country.

Once Carroll and I returned to the UK we put together and sent a consignment of equipment and useful items for the vet team in Haiti. This included, dog catching and handling equipment, dog leads and muzzles, cat baskets, pig handling boards, work boots and safety equipment for the team as well as veterinary stethoscopes and digital thermometers and many other items.

In May 2011 the work of ARCH came to a formal end. The coalition successfully met all six objectives outlined in their agreement with the Haitian government including the treatment and vaccination of over 68,000 animals. The overall aim of the relief effort was to improve animal welfare conditions, repair the country's damaged veterinary capacity and have long-lasting impact for animals and people following the devastating earthquake of 2010.

Haiti has enormous problems to overcome including poverty, corruption and a lack of natural resources. The gulf between those who have very little and those who have some wealth was greatly increased by the earthquake as it was the poorer areas which were devastated. Many of the people I spoke to aspire to simply leave their country, which is a very sad state for any country to find itself in.

Despite the massive challenges facing this small country, there are aspirations among those who worked for ARCH in the country and those in animal welfare charities who were involved, to create an animal welfare organisation in Haiti.

When it does happen, and that is 'when' and not an 'if' in my opinion, it will be a daunting prospect. But it was a daunting prospect back in 1824 for those men in south east London... you have to start somewhere.

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