The Gulf of Mexico disaster that began in April when the BP Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, spilling an estimated 5 million barrels of oil, is reaching much farther than expected.
While the toll on wildlife was immediately apparent, the tragedy is now affecting family pets.
The number of pets being surrendered by families forced into extreme financial hardship is skyrocketing. Shelters report on average up to four times as many animals being given up for adoption compared to a year ago, according to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation.
Ana Zorrilla, CEO of the Louisiana SPCA, says coastal shelters are seeing many more pets. For example, St. Bernard Animal Shelter reported 177 owner-relinquished animals in June, compared to 27 in the year-ago period. Plaquemines Parish took in 131, compared to 112.
The statistics are what, in part, spurred AVMF to partner with Hill’s Pet Nutrition and Merial to launch the Gulf Coast Pet Relief Program—AVMF.org/gulf coastpetrelief—to help veterinarians support struggling pet owners affected by the oil spill.
“We are all aware of the wide devastation,” said Neil Thompson, CEO of Hill’s.
The program will provide $145,000 in cash and food products to help reimburse 90 veterinary clinics and five shelters that provided free services and goods.
“Pet-related issues in the gulf continue to escalate, which is why we called upon our partners to come together to provide relief,” said Michael Cathey, the AVMF’s executive director. “Our hope is to ease the pet care challenges families and shelters in the gulf are facing.”
Paws to Save Pets
Merial is working through its Paws to Save Pets program, which provides emergency relief to pets after natural disasters and supports disaster preparedness by veterinary clinics and shelters. AVMF and Petfinder.com Foundation are the partner agencies.
“With ongoing help from the veterinary community, Paws to Save Pets continues to provide disaster-relief assistance for clinics, shelters and, ultimately, pet victims,” said Mary Bryant, VMD, director of professional affairs for Merial. “We’re pleased that veterinarians can benefit first-hand from this program and help many of their pet patients.”
Cathey noted that AVMF reached out to BP for assistance but did not get a response. Pets probably were not on the company’s radar, he said.
Max McGahan, a BP spokes-man, told Veterinary Practice News that he couldn’t comment specifically on the number of pets said to have been relinquished to shelters. However, he said that because BP was paying all claims in full, there was no reason for affected individuals to lose any income and therefore have to give up their pets due to economic hardship.
“We hope there is no reason for people to have to sacrifice their pets,” he said.
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In all, at least 5,828 animals affected by the gulf oil spill were collected within the incident area, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report released in early August. These included 4,914 birds (3,271 dead), 843 sea turtles (503 dead), 69 mammals (64 dead) and two “other” reptiles.
BP reported in August that engineers were sealing the well for good and that oil was no longer spewing into the gulf.
McGahan noted that BP had paid at least $303 million in claims to more than 40,000 individuals and businesses affected by the oil spill. BP also is contributing to wildlife efforts and investing resources into following the effects of the spill for both the short and long term, he said.
Free Pet Care
AVMF, Hill’s and Merial are not alone in helping family pets. Organizations including the LA/SPCA formed the Gulf Coast Companion Animal Relief Program—LA-SPCA.org/gulf coastrelief—which assists pet owners suffering financially because of the spill.
“Studies have shown that pets reduce stress, aid in overcoming depression and loss and provide comfort in times of need,” said Zorrilla, of the Louisiana SPCA. “Knowing how bonded people are with their pets, it’s heartbreaking to hear of families having to make this kind of decision.”
As part of the program, free pet care is being provided to residents of Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Terrebonne and Jefferson parishes who work in the fishing industry.
The care is made possible through a $100,000 grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Services include a basic exam, tests for feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus and canine heartworm, vaccinations, microchip implantation and registration and spay/neuter surgery.
The program helped more than 100 families in less than one month of operation.
Donations include $20,000 from VCA Charities, 41,000 pounds of Kibbles ’n Bits dog food from Del Monte Foods and unspecified amounts of food from Mars Petcare and Natura Pet Foods.
“We are overwhelmed by the generosity our newest partners have showcased,” Zorrilla said.
Wildlife Not Forgotten
Besides companion animals, gulf coast wildlife will continue to need assistance. That’s why Banfield Charitable Trust gave $10,000 to the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The money will be used to retrofit two trailers that can transport birds or sea turtles from shorelines affected by oil to safe waters elsewhere in Florida.
“The funding from the Banfield Charitable Trust obviously comes at a critical time,” said John Haven, director of medical/health administration at UF. “These funds will allow us to upgrade the temperature controls, air flow, exhaust ventilation and humidity controls in our trailers.”
UF’s veterinary school is a member of the Florida State Agricultural Response Team, whose responsibilities include veterinary rescue, assessment, care and transportation.