Animals forgotten after disasters

Sixty percent of America worries about a family pet when disaster strikes.

BY SUSAN KIM | CROWNSVILLE, Md. | March 20, 2005

"During Hurricane Charley, someone popped up who wanted to surrender 250 cats."

—Anne Culver

Sixty percent of America worries about family pets when disaster strikes.

“But where do these people go during a disaster with their pets?” asked Anne Culver, director of disaster services for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

“Sixty percent of people have pets,” she explained. “If you show up at an emergency shelter, and they say ‘no pets,’ what is the alternative?”

Pets are not permitted in most public emergency shelters due to health regulations and other legal concerns.

“We are the alternative,” she said, gesturing toward about 30 people gathered at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds on Saturday for HSUS-led training in emergency animal sheltering. From animal control employees to shelter operators to concerned pet owners, they all cared about animals and were ready to learn what to do during a disaster.

The weekend training highlighted the need for providing safe shelters for animals in disasters; how different types of emergency animal shelters are set up and operated; how emergency animal shelters fit into existing disaster response systems; and how people who care about animals can help.

HSUS’s work has spanned the globe. HSUS Disaster Consultant Melissa Forberg recently returned from tsunami-related recovery work in South Asia. In Sri Lanka and Thailand, Forberg addressed animal-related concerns. “Our main concern for companion animals over there was rabies and other diseases,” she said. “We also spayed and neutered some community animals and street animals. We checked on the health of working elephants and also checked on primates that were people’s pets.”

Whether it's working elephants, pet dogs and cats, or horses on a working farm, animals are too often the forgotten victims of a disaster, agreed Culver and Forberg. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew - along with much of the disaster response world - animal care experts realized they needed to be better prepared.

During Andrew, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed, injured, lost or left homeless. Animals were caught in debris, trapped in buildings, found in partially submerged fenced-in areas, and discovered standing on their hind legs with their front paws against a tree to try to escape the current of floodwater.

But the devastating hurricane spawned new awareness about the effects of disasters on animals. As services came together for humans, they were slower to come for animals. Many people realized animals had to be a part of a family’s disaster plan.

Most emergency managers across the country can cite examples of people during a disaster returning home illegally, risking their lives to rescue their pets. Wisconsin emergency management officials, while coping with a train derailment and a liquid propane spill that forced thousands of people from their homes, soon began to hear demands that people go home to get their pets.

When the mandatory evacuation stretched from hours into days, one Vietnam-war veteran staged his own covert operation to rescue his three Golden Retrievers from his house. The dogs were reunited with their family. The next day, at orders from the state governor, officially sanctioned pet rescue operations began. Pet owners, escorted by emergency crews, were allowed home for five minutes to get their pets. Hundreds of dogs, cats and birds were picked up.

That wouldn’t have to be the scenario if people would include their pets in their family disaster plan, explained Culver. “You have to look at your own community and see what you’re vulnerable to.”

Disasters can affect animals in much the same way they affect people. Animals may sustain physical injuries, mental stress, disorientation, homelessness, and difficulty obtaining clean food and water.

And a disaster’s effects on animals can be just as long-term as the effects on humans, Culver added. “Some 300,000 people have died in the tsunami - but how many more will die in the next year?” she wondered.

In addition, in many places, a disaster will exacerbate an already-unfortunate situation for animals. “During Hurricane Charley, someone popped up who wanted to surrender 250 cats,” said Culver.

If a community has no animal shelter - or a substandard one - a disaster’s impact is more serious. Animal cruelty incidents increase after disasters. Animal hoarders may suddenly surface, and exotic animals facilities with no emergency plan may simply abandon operations.

Culver and Forberg cite many examples of disaster-related animal issues, from a man who owned 12 tigers in Florida to a California sanctuary with 12 bears threatened by a wildfire. The bottom line is that disaster response to animals is complex and needs to be pre-planned, cautioned Culver - and that goes for the seemingly simple cases such as a family with a dog.

“Most people have pets,” she said. “It is normal to have a pet and to treat that pet like one of the family. We have been asked why we are focused on the animals when the human needs are so great.”

Because assisting animals in disasters doesn’t mean putting animals above people, said both Culver and Forberg.

“Listen, it’s not the animals that come up to us and ask for help. It’s the people who ask us for help. Animal issues are people issues,” said Culver.

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