Among the items in my wallet is an identification card that says I am a certified Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) technician. As a zoo veterinarian, this certification is very important to me – and to the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) – because it means that in the event of an environmental emergency anywhere in the world, I can be deployed to help. In addition to myself, two other DZS veterinarians, a veterinary technician and six animal care staff members carry these cards and have this expertise.
HAZWOPER training is required for anyone who may be working in situations with hazardous materials. A big example of this is oil, and all the other toxic chemicals involved in an oil spill. If an oil spill were to occur, and if there are animals affected, they will need care and treatment – which puts the people caring for them in harm’s way. HAZWOPER training is not only about the animals themselves – that is our area of expertise as trained animal health professionals – it is about all the other dangers humans could face while trying to save them.
As part of this training, we learn how to protect ourselves from all the things that could be harmful at a hazardous waste cleanup site. In addition to being exposed to many kinds of toxic chemicals and vapors that can be inhaled, we may also have to protect ourselves from heatstroke or frostbite. This training is required by the government in order for us to lend our expertise to help the animals because if one of us were to become ill or injured, it would only add to the challenges of an already difficult situation. It’s similar to the airplane safety measure of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping a child put on theirs – if those of us trying to help don’t keep ourselves safe first, it puts the animals at even greater risk.
HAZWOPER training is labor and time intensive and requires skilled instructors and specific materials. If an emergency were to happen today, one cannot wait weeks or months to undergo the training, because the animals need help now. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – the largest marine oil spill in history – many veterinarians and other professionals trained in animal care wanted to help, but without HAZWOPER training, the government wouldn’t allow it. An estimated 2.2 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf every day for nearly three months. This oil spill affected 400 different species of wildlife, including 8,000 birds, 1,100 sea turtles and 109 mammals. This is exactly why we stay ready – we undergo an eight-hour refresher course annually in order to maintain our certification, which many of us do in our free time, outside of work hours. And because of this, one of the DZS’s veterinary technicians was able to travel to New Orleans that summer and assist with Deepwater recovery efforts.
Thankfully, we haven’t needed to respond to an environmental disaster in the past two years, and frankly, we’d like to keep it that way. But if the worst happens tomorrow and animals need our help, we’ll be on the next plane.
– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and works at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.