Fighting fire threat to horses through microchips

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Malibu resident Stephanie Abronson with her horses. Abronson advocates using microchips to find lost animals after a fire or other natural disaster strikes.

Local resident urges owners of large animals to microchip them in case they get lost during a natural disaster.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu’s January fire, sparked by extremely dry weather conditions and, perhaps, a carelessly thrown cigarette butt, and the recent fire in Lake Tahoe underscored the vulnerability of not just human residents, but that of a teeming animal population, including horses and other large mammals.

Stephanie Abronson, a local resident who worked with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to develop an Equine Response Team for the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control, is alarmed at the danger to horses that fire presents in the current climate.

“If there’s a fire roaring over the hill next to your corral, what do you do?” she asked. “If your horse gets out and gets lost, how do you find him?”

Abronson confronted these very questions during the fires of 1993, when she was out of town and her housekeeper called to say that the hills were on fire and what should she do with the horses?

“Fortunately, I had already worked out a rapid response plan with a friend, who came with a horse trailer and evacuated my horses. They were kept calm and suffered no trauma,” Abronson said. “However, I do know that one local horse had escaped his enclosure, or was released by the owner, and was killed when he was hit by a fire truck.”

Abronson said the worst thing you can do for your horse in the event of a fire is to simply release him into the wild.

“Horses panic. There is a much greater chance that your horse will be injured in fire conditions,” she explained. “It’s much better to secure your horse in a sand or dirt-floor paddock that has metal barriers. If the horse is freed, there is a good chance he’ll be hurt or very hard to recover.”

If an animal is released or gets out, Abronson and the Equine Response Team have devised a plan to permanently track and identify horses and other large animals that might be lost in the event of a natural disaster.

“Microchipping,” Abronson said. “It’s already proven to be really effective. In Louisiana, it’s the law to microchip horses and that is how owners found and legally identified their horses after Katrina.”

Abronson is referring to a practice of recent years in which a small-about the size of a pencil tip-microchip is embedded subcutaneously in a benign location on an animal. The microchip is imprinted with the equivalent of your car’s vehicle identification number that can be scanned without removing the chip and the identifying information is immediately available from a national date base. The lost animal is found.

In horses, the microchip is implanted in the nuchal ligament, just under the mane, half way between the withers and the ears. It does not migrate in the body and, as Abronson emphasized, “It doesn’t cause cancer.”

Her own experiences with natural disasters galvanized Abronson to help form an Equine Response Team in conjunction with the county Department of Animal Care and Control.

“In the event of fire, mudslides, earthquakes, whatever, we alert teams with trailers who go out to the properties with transport vans, load up the animals and take them to safety,” Abronson said. “We work in conjunction with local vets and the Agoura Animal Shelter.”

But the first step to identifying your animal is through the microchipping process and the county is organizing a drive to microchip “every horse in the Santa Monica Mountains,” Abronson said. “Local animal shelters can microchip your dog or cat, but vets have to go to large animals.”

So Abronson has helped organize Microchip clinics for all local horse owners, aided by a grant from the county through Yaroslavsky’s office.

“We’ll identify eight or 10 locations and residents can even ride their horse there for the microchipping process,” Abronson said. “The Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital is donating their technicians and the nominal fee will be dependent upon the largesse of the grant. We might be able to do it for free!”

Mary Lukins, the emergency-coordinating director for the L.A. County Department of Animal Care and Control, echoes Abronson’s concerns for the safety of animals during a natural disaster. “We’ve trained Equine Response Teams to go out and evacuate animals,” she said. “But, frankly, our biggest challenge is getting horse owners to prepare for a disastrous event.”

Lukins emphasized the necessity of preparation, including training horses to board transport vans. “If you have five minutes to evacuate a horse and he has never been trained to load into a van, you probably won’t be able to get him out of there,” she said. “These are just common sense approaches to dealing with disaster.”

Lukins lists several steps horse owners can take to prepare for emergencies (see sidebar) and urges vigilance on red flag days of extremely dry, hot weather.

To obtain more information on a low-cost microchip clinic, fax Stephanie Abronson at 818.222.1605 or e-mail her at Stephanie@abronson.com with “microchip clinic” as the subject.