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Sharing the Spirit: Saving Napa's horses during natural disasters

Sharing the Spirit: Saving Napa's horses during natural disasters


In a community that’s prone to emergency evacuations, Napa CART is fulfilling a vital need for owners of large animals.

“Evacuations can be logistically challenging and dangerous, as you can imagine. During high winds and fire, horses can be hard to handle,” said Claudia Sonder, DVM, president and one of the founders of Napa CART (Community Animal Rescue Team).

Along with being a veterinarian, Sonder is on the board of directors at Sunrise Horse Rescue. Animal owners may also know her from the many years she owned Napa Valley Veterinary Hospital. She sold it and went to UC Davis as director for Center of Equine Health, but recently bought the Napa practice back. Sonder is primarily a horse doctor but “We look at ‘anything with hoofs,’” she said.

Sonder is also a lifelong horse owner. During the Tubbs Fire in October 2017, she had to evacuate with horses, and before that, in the Soda Canyon Fire.

What she found was, “There are no formal plans for animals in disaster response in our country that are working well. There are plans and organizations but there is a gap between the planning and the boots on the ground response when the disaster first occurs,” she said. “There is the PETS Act legislation that only applies to companion animals so most communities do not have a written or implementable plan for large animals. You’re on your own.”

That’s where Napa CART comes in.

Practice evacuations Large animal owners are encouraged to drill and practice loading so that when they have to do it, it’s a routine thing for their animals; they get the hang of it, and it’s done safely.

If animal owners have to evacuate without their animals, they need a plan for what is going to happen while they are gone. Have a plan and practice it. That’s Napa CART’s main message.

“We always say we’ll save many more animals through outreach than we will through evacuation. So a lot of what we do is outreach to get people to be prepared,” Sonder said.

Also, have a plan for an evacuation to happen in the middle of the day when you’re not home. Have information available in your home, such as what the animal eats, what its name is, and who its veterinarian is.

“We know historically going back to other fires of the 1970s and even Hurricane Katrina that if you don’t give people a plan for their animals they won’t leave. So we always stress the reason we are here is to keep first responders and humans safe first, and to address the animal component,” Sonder said.

Owners are also encouraged to leave early for an evacuation. During an emergency event, Napa County will publicize information as to where the shelters are located and set up a call center so that those who need help can call.

Napa CART teams also go out after the fire, when it’s safe to do so, and care for animals left behind, or rescue them if need be.

Filling a gap in animal rescue

The idea for Napa CART emerged when Sonder was doing research for the UC Davis Horse Report in 2014. It was then she came across the CART organization in California.

Then, in 2015, the Valley Fire happened in Lake County and Sonder went to assist veterinarians there. She realized, once again, there was no great plan for large animals in particular. “It was a real wake-up call,” she said.

Sonder started working with the Napa County Office of Emergency Services (OES) to find ways to evacuate and shelter horses, and places to store equipment. By the time of the Tubbs Fire in 2017, “We actually had a very nice implementable plan. There’s a great horse community in our valley. The leadership in Napa County has been very supportive,” Sonder said.

To date, about 200 volunteers have attended the organization’s trainings. Nearly 70 have met all the training requirements to be a Napa CART disaster worker including CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training, and being sworn in by Napa County OES. Napa CART works very closely with the sheriff’s office.

The two main shelter sites are the Napa Valley Horsemen’s Association and Valley Brook Equestrian Center, a large equine facility that can accommodate hundreds of horses at a time.

Napa CART operates under Napa County Animal Services. Sunrise Horse Rescue is a key partner with Napa CART, also helping with evacuation and sheltering. Sonder is also on the board of directors there. Other partners are Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch and Napa Humane.

“We’re really lucky that these other organizations were willing to come in under the umbrella,” Sonder said.

Napa CART serves primarily Napa County but can provide aid to other counties. The organization is still working on formal agreements to assist in Sonoma and Lake counties, but during the Kincade Fire, the organization was able to take in 80 horses from Sonoma County in one afternoon.

New volunteer training with Napa CART starts Feb. 1, 2020. Fine out more at

You can reach Cynthia Sweeney at 942-4035 or

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The Weekly Calistogan Editor

Cynthia Sweeney has been editor of The Weekly Calistogan since July, 2018. Previously, she was a reporter for the St. Helena Star, and North Bay Business Journal. She also spent a significant amount of time freelancing in Hawaii.

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