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Keeping Your Pet Safe in a Disaster

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Keeping Your Pet Safe in a Disaster

Snowball had found herself a perch on the second-floor window air-conditioning unit. Only a week before, that perch was twelve feet off the ground. Today, as Snowball huddled miserably against the windowpane, the floodwaters lapped against the side of the house only inches below her paws. Her human family had long-since evacuated her home, but she had been left to fend for herself. Exhausted, hungry and cold, she was among thousands of other animals left behind by their owners in the floods stemming from Hurricane Floyd in September 1999.

Every year the United States is host to dozens of disasters, large and small. Hurricanes and floods pose the biggest risk to our companion animals and yet, too often, people leave their non-human family members at home while the rest of the family evacuates to safety.

Every year since 1916 the American Humane Association (AHA) has saved the lives of many animals like Snowball. It's work that the Emergency Animal Relief staff of AHA does tirelessly and eagerly. Yet, says AHA's manager of Emergency Animal Relief, Dick Green, "We shouldn't have to rescue so many pets from disasters in which owners had hours, or even days, to prepare. Preparation for a disaster should include companion animals." In the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, AHA sent rescue teams to work in three different states, in dozens of communities. "Everywhere we went, in every flooded community, we found animals left behind - cats, dogs, birds, and hamsters. Animals that easily enough could of been taken with the family."

Part of the problem is that the American Red Cross shelters established for human evacuees do not accept pets, except for service animals for the handicapped. Because of this, AHA approached the Red Cross several times in the last six years to suggest that there may be ways to co-locate both families and their companion pets in special evacuation shelters. AHA provided a list of procedures which if employed, would allow the safe and responsible housing of both humans and companion animals. So far the American Red Cross has not changed their policy or entertained further discussion on the topic of protecting the families that include pets. However, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, fully 58 percent of American households include a dog or cat.

Another concern is that public safety officials (fire/rescue, police, and emergency management) sometimes tell the public to evacuate without thier animals. This is typically done in situations where they feel that to delay evacuation, even for the few minutes it may take to load the family pet into the car, is more time than is safe for the family. As a result, however, some family members later try to return to the house to rescue their pet. This jeopardizes the lives of the family as well as the search and rescue personnel whose duty is to rescue them. AHA firmly recommends that public safety officials ask families to evacuate with their pets so that they will not feel the need to return when the conditions are even more dangerous.

In the spring of 1996, the small Wisconsin town of Weyauwega was evacuated when a freight train derailed. Several propane tanker cars were close to erupting. All 1600 residents were told to evacuate for what what was presumed to be only a few hours. Most of the evacuees chose to leave their animals behind for this short duration. However, it was determined later in the day that the safest course of action would be to allow the propane fires to burn themselves out. This, it was announced to the evacuees, might take as long as six weeks.

The animal-owning residents insisted that something be done more quickly. Some, risking both explosion and exposure to the sub-freezing Wisconsin night, took matters into their own hands and walked the five miles from the barricades to their homes to rescue their pets. The public safty officials recognized that it was safer to work with the owners rather than try to keep people from attempting to rescue their pets. By using National Guard tanks to safely bring AHA rescuers and the animal owners back to their houses, all of the dogs, cats, birds and fish were rescued.

These and local safety officials in other communities affected by disasters have learned a valuable lesson: The best rescue of an animal is the one that never has to happen in the first place. If the animal is included in the evacuation, it is an animal that will not have to be rescued later.

Certainly, the responsibility for a companion animal's safety belongs to the family. If all families made sure that their animals were included in their household disaster plan, the AHA would have far fewer animals to rescue in emergencies. That suits AHA just fine, says Nicholas Gilman, director of animal programs for AHA. "We hope that the animal-owning public will consider the needs of their companion animals long before AHA is called in to perform a rescue."

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