"Sandy" Series: We Must Learn to Deal with Our Animal Instincts

November 9th, 2012 by CHHS RAs

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By Megan Ix, CHHS Research Associate

When a tornado hit Kansas in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy never let Toto out of her sight, despite the dangers looming. Although a fictional movie, the sentiment is real: pet owners will go to great lengths to keep their pets safe and close during an emergency. After Hurricane Katrina, a survey found that of those people who chose not to evacuate, 44 percent cited their desire to stay with their pets. Story after story emphasizes that people are often reluctant to leave their pets behind in an emergency, and may risk their own lives in refusing to evacuate, or returning to try to rescue their pets. As pet owners have continued to show reluctance to separate from their animals, larger-scale action is required to ensure the safety of people and their animals when disaster strikes.

New York City recently got it right. Leading up to and during Superstorm Sandy, city officials mandated that all of its city shelters and public transit allow pets. Allowing Toto to ride the subway may seem unremarkable during a storm strong enough to kill more than 30 people and leave millions without power. However, the Director of Disaster Services for the Humane Society noted that the mandate was “really key in making sure people adhered to those mandatory evacuation notices.”

As the issue of pet evacuations has gained momentum, there are an increasing number of resources to assist individuals and communities in planning, as well as mandates requiring pets to be included in emergency plans.  Before Hurricane Katrina, many disaster plans did not take into account how to rescue pet owners and animals, which requires additional planning and resources.  Following Katrina, where many animals died or were left without shelter and pet owners were in danger because they were unwilling to abandon their pets, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 (PETS Act) was signed into law. The Act requires that emergency preparedness authorities include how they will accommodate households with pets or service animals.  Prior to Hurricane Irene’s landfall in 2011, the Humane Society made recommendations for people who needed to factor pets into their evacuation plans, and continues to provide resources for pet owners during an emergency. Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now offers training courses about animals in disasters and community planning.

Some communities have taken it upon themselves to prepare for pet evacuations during emergencies. Avalon, a borough of Cape May County, New Jersey, found that a majority of its pet owners would not leave unless they could do so with their pets. As a result, Avalon raised $24,000 from donations to convert an old big rig truck into a mobile pet shelter. During an evacuation event, pet owners would travel with their pets to Avalon's designated shelter, where the pet evacuation trailer would be located. The owners would help care for their own pets during the emergency.The trailer is customized with amenities for the safety, health, and comfort of pets – including climate control, running water, a veterinary work station, a wash basin, refrigerator, and generator hook up.  

Five counties in Oregon took a different approach: they joined together to participate in a pet evacuation disaster drill. Using a combination of live pets and stuffed animals, animal service officials tested their mass pet sheltering procedures. The exercise coordinator noted that emergency pet sheltering is “that extra piece that allows people the peace of mind to be able to evacuate in a safe manner when they’re first asked.” The exercise helped for planning purposes, but also helped to assure residents of the strategies in place to ensure safe evacuation of themselves and their pets.  

From fictional movies to real-life emergencies, society has demonstrated the high value it places on protecting pets as members of the family. As a result, some communities have taken the initiative to include animals in emergency plans. Building pet evacuation shelters and practicing pet evacuations are just two examples of how communities can be creative and proactive in addressing concerns of residents and issues that hinder evacuation orders. This type of preparation, which could include everything from allowing pets on mass transit to constructing mobile pet shelters, will be instrumental in protecting the safety of the public and their animals during emergencies. 

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