What I saw after Hurricane Ian as a veterinarian in a pop-up clinic

By Dr. Katherine Polak

Dr. Katherine Polak completed a residency in Shelter Medicine at the University of Florida in 2014, after which she moved to Thailand, where she cared for thousands of animals in shelters and established multiple spay-neuter clinics. She also traveled throughout Southeast Asia on a campaign to end the cruel dog and cat meat trade. Dr. Katherine Polak is currently the vice president of Companion Animals and Engagement for Humane Society International. In the weeks after Hurricane Ian devastated communities across Florida, the HSI team coordinated the creation of a distribution center for pet food and a pop-up veterinary clinic offering free veterinary services in a regional library parking lot in Port Charlotte, Florida. Dr. Polak coordinated the care of nearly 900 animals while local clinics were closed due to the hurricane. In this guest blog, Dr. Polak tells us what it was like to deliver much-needed care to this community.

2 puppies stand on a table awaiting veterinary care
Given the dramatic need for veterinary services, the idea of establishing a pop-up vet clinic next to the HSUS food distribution point was born, so that the local community could access basic veterinary care. Kelly Donithan/The HSUS

When I arrived in Florida two weeks after Hurricane Ian, I didn’t know what to expect. I had thought that so many days after the storm that the demand for services might be winding down. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Hurricane Ian devastated communities across Southwest Florida, affecting both people and animals alike. To help support pet owners during this crisis, the Humane Society of the United States launched a pet food distribution initiative, stationed out of a library parking lot in Port Charlotte. The team distributed desperately needed pet food and supplies for dogs, cats, chickens, hamsters, rabbits, and more at no cost. The need was astonishing: More than 500 cars passed through each day to pick up supplies.

As people were passing through the distribution center, our Animal Rescue Team learned that providing supplies only skimmed the surface of what people needed for their animals. Many people told our team that their animals were sick, injured and unable to reach a vet. Most veterinary clinics in the area had been severely damaged and were closed indefinitely. Given the damage to homes in the area, many people were also living in tents and in their cars with their pets, many of whom were suffering from untreated illnesses, flea infestations and severe matting.

Volunteer veterinary staff treat puppies
Thanks to the generosity of the Tampa Bay veterinary community, along with local charities including the Animal Welfare League of Charlotte County and Nate‘s Honor Animal Rescue, our pop-up veterinary clinic swiftly expanded its capacity to see patients. Kelly Donithan/The HSUS

Given the dramatic need for veterinary services, the idea of establishing a pop-up vet clinic next to the food distribution point was born, so that the local community could access basic veterinary care. Because I am a veterinarian licensed to practice in the state, I was in an ideal position to help rally local veterinary support, procure supplies and medications and get our clinic up and running. When I arrived, the first step was getting an actual clinic set-up. This consisted primarily of multiple tents equipped with basic veterinary supplies. After a couple of calls to county officials explaining our plan, a text message was sent to residents advertising free veterinary care.

Almost immediately after the text message went out to the community about our pop-up vet clinic, we were overwhelmed with people bringing in their sick and injured animals. By 8:30 a.m. every morning there was a line forming in the parking lot of pet owners desperate to have their animals seen by a veterinarian. We decided to ramp up our capacity, putting out an urgent call for help (vets, technicians and supplies) across the state to meet the demand. Luckily, the Florida Veterinary Medical Association responded, quickly assembling a roster of vets and technicians eager to help.

A volunteer holds an orphaned squirrel.
You name it, our pop-up veterinary clinic saw it—including this orphaned baby squirrel. Kelly Donithan/The HSUS

We were initially limited in our medication and supply resources, but we wanted to do more. These people and their animals endured so much. We wanted them to have access to not only basic veterinary care for their animals, but the absolute best care possible. For many people, their pets were all they had left.

After a bit of a hustle, we were operational. We had coolers full of donated medicines and vaccines, a makeshift pharmacy and a preventive care station that happily provided the public with tick and flea preventive for their animals. The cases of animals presenting to the clinic varied dramatically: Some cats had stress-induced urinary conditions and fractures. We saw a bunny who refused to eat, a dog who was rescued after nearly drowning in a pool, an orphaned baby squirrel, a chicken with a fractured wing. You name it, our pop-up veterinary clinic saw it. On the second day of operation, we welcomed more than 240 patients.

A dog waits on a table for veterinary care
There was a huge demand for basic veterinary care; our pop-up vet clinic was happy to provide those services while veterinary clinics in the area remaining closed. Kelly Donithan/The HSUS

Many people were living out of their cars and tents with their animals after their homes had been destroyed. One woman arrived at the clinic in her minivan: Inside were her eight cats and two dogs, all living together in the vehicle. She wanted the animals to get treated for fleas and get their shots. And while some of the cases we saw were hurricane-related (lacerations, broken bones), a lot were also instances where these animals hadn’t seen a vet in a long time, if ever. Because of socioeconomic barriers and lack of access to services, this was their very first opportunity for their beloved pets to get care.

There was a huge demand for basic veterinary care, such as administering vaccines and doing nail trims, and we were happy to provide those services while veterinary clinics in the area remained closed. Some people were desperate to get their animals groomed. While grooming isn’t routinely considered part of disaster medicine, many of these pets were now living in unsanitary environments as homes were flooded. We were able to do clip-and-cleans, to the best of our ability, with little electricity and no running water. Not only was it important for the animals, but it also gave owners peace-of-mind that their animals would stay healthy, and hopefully set that animal up for a lifetime of continued veterinary care.

The clinic also provided a place for lost pets to be reunited with their owners. On one of the last days we were there, a woman who had already visited our clinic with her own dogs returned carrying a sweet Yorkie she found running loose on the highway. She immediately scooped up this lost dog and brought her to us. Even though the Yorkie had matted fur and was covered in dirt and burrs, she had a rabies tag and a collar: We knew she had a family somewhere, so we hustled to post photos of the dog on lost pet social media sites. Within hours, she was reunited with her owner, who had been looking for her since she escaped during the storm.

Now I have returned from helping with the Hurricane Ian response, but my mind is still full of the hundreds of people and animals I met. In under one week, we treated more than 881 patients, and provided thousands more with flea, tick and heartworm preventive to keep them healthy until regular veterinary services resume. As I reflect on the entire experience, I can’t help but think about how preventive-type veterinary care after a disaster like Hurricane Ian is equally as important as offering urgent care, particularly when pets are living in such close quarters with their people. Disasters like Hurricane Ian also reveal the lack of access to affordable veterinary care that already existed in many communities. This is why initiatives that provide access to care for underserved communities like our Pets for Life program and Rural Animal Veterinary Services are so important. Our pop-up clinic clients were literally leaving in happy tears, so thankful that we were able to get their animals help, and vaccinate their pets, which they had never been able to afford before.

Storeroom of veterinary supplies
Once the need for basic veterinary care became obvious, our team hustled to ensure we had the supplies to provide the best care possible for the community’s pets, offering local families some peace of mind. Kelly Donithan/The HSUS

In many cases, when people have lost everything, these pets are the only family they have left. Providing for this community truly took a team effort. The Florida Veterinary Medical Association, the Tampa Bay veterinary community, Animal Welfare League of Charlotte County and Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue, to name a few, were instrumental in making this happen. Thanks to their support, the animals in Charlotte County received top-notch care from Florida’s best veterinarians. It was truly one of the most treasured experiences of my life to have been able to help this community of families and their pets in their time of need.https://youtu.be/4uoe_JnElc0

You can support lifesaving efforts like this by donating to our Emergency Animal Relief Fund, which ensures that our team can continue to answer the call during times of emergency wherever, whenever and however animals need us. This blog post first appeared in Kitty Block’s A Humane World.