Veterinarian Dirk Yelinek has been caring for people’s pets for decades. After working at hundreds of animal hospitals and then starting Redondo Shores Veterinary Center in 2004, he said he finally found another reason to be a vet.
Yelinek is part of an elite group of 180 veterinarians from around the country who are on call to help with a disaster.
The National Veterinary Response Team responds to disaster areas where resources are already overwhelmed. They provide care to service, working and laboratory animals, livestock, or treatment to injured or sick animals.
Yelinek said NVRT’s goal is not just about rescuing animals, it’s also “helping dogs that rescue humans.”
And with fires raging this summer in California, Yelinek said he’s always a phone call away from deployment.
“They bring us in to assist them to do whatever they want us to do,” said Yelinek, who is a regional leader for the team.
Helping dogs find people
Yelinek first heard about the veterinary assistant teams after making a house call about a wild cat in Orange County.
The man, a physician, had ketamine, a sedation drug. The physician had been deployed to various disasters including the Oklahoma City bombings. Yelinek asked if they have vets to take care of the search and rescue dogs and the man gave him names of a couple of veterinarians. After 9/11, Yelinek was inspired to contact the vets to see if he could help.
“I really got into it to hopefully help the handlers with their search and rescue dogs so I can help dogs find people,” Yelinek said.
Yelinek’s first job with the team was in 2002. He was sent to Virginia to help with the H7N2 avian influenza outbreak. That outbreak destroyed nearly 5 million birds, according to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, and impacted turkey and chicken farms in the Shenandoah Valley.
“The H7N2 had mutated and killed people in Asia, so what they wanted to do was do surveillance on these birds that were dying, have us come out and help the USDA test them, swab their throats and do the tests and make sure that this virus wasn’t turning into something else,” Yelinek said.
Three years later, Hurricane Rita, which reached Category 5 status, wrecked havoc from the Bahamas to the United States, causing billions of damages and dozens of deaths. Yelinek traveled with a team of 19 arriving in Texas a day before the hurricane hit. They got vans at the airport and stayed at the American Airlines training center outside Dallas-Fort Worth
“After the hurricane came in we drove down in a caravan and we went to Houston and from there we had to get a mission… go out to the veterinary infrastructure and to the shelters and see if there were any animals to be helped or to be transported because everyone had evacuated,” Yelinek said. “Of all of the veterinary hospitals I went to with my team, we found most of them without any personnel and some of them where the animals were still inside. So we helped the ASPCA down there get the animals out and bring them to an essential area which was a field operation in Beaumont, Texas at the Ford Arena.”
The Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams were originally formed in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida. NVRT has since assisted in not only natural disasters but events from Ronald Reagan’s funeral to the Super Bowl. The state needs to request aid from the government before NVRT is deployed. They go through training sessions, including one that Yelinek attended this year in Atlanta. If he were to be deployed, it would be a two-week commitment and he has to be available to leave within 12 to 24 hours. If he is deployed, he does get paid, but he’s said “It’s not about the money.”
Canine rescuers importance
Yelinek is NVRT’s Fema Region IX leader. This region covers Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Guam, American Samoa, Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Republic of Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and more than 150 sovereign tribal entities.
“I found another reason to be a veterinarian… I’m grateful I can help out,” he said.
Yelinek emphasized the importance of rescue canines.
“There could be a train wreck and all of a sudden there’s a baby missing that nobody knew was missing and there are dogs that are finding that baby because those dogs know how to sniff them out,” Yelinek said.
Yelinek added, “You’re helping the humans by helping the animals, but you’re really trying to instill in people’s minds that animals are part of the family and when you’re evacuating you should evacuate with your pets.”
There’s also the issue of PTSD when it comes to responders of disaster.
“In the system we’re deployed with coroners, nurses, real doctors, firemen,” Yelinek said. “They draw from all of these entities for their expertise and some people have almost made it a career of just deploring to disasters. It can pretty much wear a person out emotionally from the things they might see and experience the destruction, the bad stuff.”
Yelinek also works with the local CERT team as well as the California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corp., a disaster component of the California Veterinary Medical Association.
As for the fires that continue to rage in California, Grant Miller, a regulatory vet who works for the CVMA, told Yelinek “You need to be ready.”
“Sure enough that Holy fire went from 700 acres to over 20,000… but they haven’t asked us to assist,” Yelinek said. “So I think the local animal control and the shelters are already handling that without outside assistance.”
Whether it’s the NVRT or CAVMRC, Yelinek said he will “do whatever they tell me to do.”
“It’s not like ‘I’m a doctor,’ it’s not like I have to be doctoring,” he said.
“If it’s helping rounding up some dogs that are loose in the yard, I’ll do it. If it’s cleaning a cage, I’ll do it. If it’s talking to an owner and trying to make them calm in a difficult situation, I’ll do it.”