by Erica Rains | photos courtesy Wilson County DART
Julie Hutchison knows the exact moment she realized her life’s purpose. It was in the middle of one of the worst natural disasters in history, Hurricane Katrina.
“I was so affected by the number of animals we rescued,” Hutchison remembers. “I knew one thing: this can’t happen in my backyard.” How many animals’ lives did she save that day? Countless. And 15 years later, the numbers continue to be astronomical.
Hutchison is the founder and coordinator for Wilson County DART (Disaster Animal Response Team) and, as the number one team in the state, this group of tireless volunteers has set the standard for this program.
After collaborating with the Wilson County Emergency Management Agency (under the state agency, which falls under FEMA), Hutchison was able to develop this specific rescue and disaster relief team that would help save animals from various distress and situations. In other words, she’s seen it all.
“We had 38 huskies in a barn in a hoarding situation,” Hutchison recalls. Apparently, the ‘wife liked huskies’ but they got in over their head and just locked them away with no food or water and forgot them. It turned out to be a horrid kidnapping ring that Wilson County DART was able to turn into a happy ending. Aside from heart-wrenching conditions, the 30 volunteers do extreme physical work to find every single dog a home through county rescue groups and the goodness of people’s hearts.
Sadly, that scenario isn’t abnormal in the daily operations of an animal response team like this one. “We keep in touch with some of the dogs,” Hutchison says happily. Some of them, like a sweet pup named Alaska, have been followed by the team throughout their life cycle. In some ways, these animals are reborn the day the Wilson County DART team intervenes in their lives.
So how does a team like this continue to flourish? Volunteers. “Nothing stops these volunteers; they’re dynamite,” says Hutchison. She says they have about 25 women and 5 men, and they could use some strong young men (and women!) to help with the physicality that the work demands to save these animals.
She says training is provided monthly, and folks are never asked to work in a field where they aren’t yet certain. Everything from active rescue to administrative work at the front desk is included in the work that is necessary to keep this machine running smoothly.
How can you help? Donations in the form of many items are crucial. From leashes and collars to flea prevention, office supplies, kennel pads, a salmon net, toys and printer ink, there are many items that this organization needs to continue to be such a force in saving the lives of our furry friends. The full list and many more resources and information can be found on their website, www.wcdart.org.
Amazingly, the help doesn’t stop at animals. This entire team is trained to help humans too. “That’s what happened in Rockport, Texas,” Hutchison notes. When Hurricane Harvey hit, the Red Cross had not yet been there when her team arrived. In addition to saving the animals, the volunteers aided humans too with resources and other assistance. Every single volunteer is CPR certified for animals and people, and have extensive training and security clearance because of their affiliation with state and federal agencies. These folks aren’t messing around. They are here to save lives – furry or otherwise.
Not every county currently has such a team, but they should, according to Hutchison. “Every county should have some provisions,” she said. But some only have a call list when disaster strikes. This is not strong enough to save the animals, which is why teams like hers are called upon to help not only in neighboring counties but also in other states.
“If you see something, say something,” she adds. Calling your local county’s disaster response team is a way to start. If people feel that they could help do more, Hutchison has offered her services to mentor and guide new teams just getting started in other counties, as she’s already done for others.
With the unstable spring weather systems looming, there’s an uneasiness as the team anticipates more hurricanes and more stranded animals in need. But like superheroes, they stand at the ready. “I hope I’m still doing this when I’m 70,” Hutchison says.
So do we, Julie. So do we.
About the author:
Erica Rains has been a magazine journalist in Middle Tennessee and surrounding regions for 25 years. She focuses on human (and animal!) interest stories and features. She is the owner and CEO of The Chef and I Companies, headquartered in Nashville, TN. She was born an equestrian and competed for many years in the hunter-jumper world. She loves the beach, dancing, singing, and helping others. Collaborate or start a discussion with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.