Throughout history, animals and pets have held varying degrees of importance to the people who care for them. They have been worshipped, raised for food, served as co-workers on farms, or just loved as companions. Regardless of their “worth,” when something disrupts the ability to care for those animals, outside help is needed. The outside help currently needed is limited when it comes to rescuing, caring for, and sheltering pets because it has not been fully integrated into emergency management’s planning activities.
Pets are not just animals that share space with humans. They are now a significant part of family life. This was especially noticed in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, where the estimated number of pets lost, abandoned, or deceased was significant – one article submitted to the Journal of Animal Law & Ethics in 2010 stated that “600,000 animals either died or were left without shelter.” That storm brought with it an outcry to change how animal planning for disasters is addressed. This led to the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 (PETS). Although not a perfect solution, the PETS Act brought to light a reality that needed to be addressed – how to handle pet care, evacuation, and sheltering during disasters.
Great strides have been made since that storm, but numerous disasters have shown that improvement is still needed. The PETS Act created a mandate to have a “plan” for animals in disasters, but it was only a base framework for state and local governments to interpret. Having only a base framework as a requirement, most states and jurisdictions created the bare minimum of a plan, which allowed them to “check the box.” Although there have been areas of the country that have gone beyond the minimum requirements in planning for animals such as some of the southern states that deal with disasters annually, those jurisdictions are not the norm.
Why Pets Are Left Behind & What Happens to Them
During many disasters, pets that are left behind – whether stranded on roofs or floating on debris – are scared and trying to instinctively survive. There are many reasons pets may be left behind when disasters strike: the owners are not home and have no alternate plan for that scenario; or the owners have not practiced evacuation procedures to get the animals comfortable with those procedures. This happens for multiple reasons, but the most prominent is due to a lack of direction given to the public surrounding pet evacuation. The messaging that is sent out for people to evacuate often does not include what to do with pets. If they must evacuate, with or without their pets, they need to know where help will be provided. They also need to receive general safety information for themselves and their pets, such as detailed evacuation messaging, shelter locations, types of shelters available, and detailed evacuation routes.
People that do not evacuate with their pets put first responders in more danger. Thus, first responders and animal rescue groups go back into the disaster area to rescue animals left behind. In addition, responders may have to help people who became stranded after trying to re-enter the disaster area to retrieve their pets. First responders could also become stranded when assisting with such rescue efforts. If rescue operations as well as response and recovery efforts are delayed and take longer to complete, then a greater number of responders may be needed to accomplish the initial tasks.
People love their pets and, for many, they are as important as children. Everything possible has been done to ensure clear and consistent messaging for the safety of human children. Considering the increased status of pets as family members, disaster preparedness professions should consider similar messaging with regard to the safety of animals.
Although it takes time, money, and commitment, there are ways that the emergency management profession could help alleviate the most common factor associated with people not evacuating – pet ownership. Opportunities include:
- Finding a champion for the cause, whether an emergency management employee, a volunteer, or someone who works for the local animal shelter or rescue group. Find a partner in someone that already has a passion for animals and can help spread the word about pet care and sheltering.
- Putting together a survey to find out what community members know and do not know when it comes to pet preparedness before, during, and after a disaster.
- Putting together an outreach campaign designed around pet and animal preparedness, including what was learned from the community survey to help narrow the focus on what the community needs.
- Developing outreach and collaboration with local animal shelters and rescue organizations so everyone is on the same page and can create more consistent messaging that is spread further.
- Creating messaging templates ahead of disasters. These could be as easy as adding a sentence to the end of one that already exists to include information about what can be done for pets and where pets can be taken for shelter and care.
It is helpful to do a little research before developing a messaging campaign, as many best practices are already publicly available.
If emergency management could take small steps toward including pets in their emergency and preparedness messaging, then they would be one step closer to achieving the maximum number of lives saved in a disaster. With pre-planning and collaboration, agencies could reduce the number of pets (and owners) left in the hazard area.