San Diego Humane Society’s Emergency Response Team is something of a model nationwide. The ERT consists of 165 people ready to spring into action to rescue or care for pets, manage tracking systems, run shelters—whatever’s needed.
Over the past several years, San Diego Humane Society staff and volunteers have deployed across the country to assist local emergency response teams on the ground during natural disasters and animal cruelty incidents. They traveled to New York City to help quarantine hundreds of cats sick with bird flu; they lent a hand at a Midwest emergency shelter; they stepped up to care for animals following the Camp Fire in Northern California; and that’s just to name a few.
More than half of households in the U.S. have pets. And any incident that affects humans—fire, earthquake, extreme weather—will endanger our dogs, cats, and other animals, too. Fortunately, just like people, animals are a top priority whenever disaster strikes.
During any large-scale event, you’re certain to find responders working to rescue and care for our pets and livestock. And thanks to a well-coordinated nationwide response network, when the need is great enough, animal welfare personnel can rush to the scene from around the country to lend a hand.
“We want to help animals wherever we can,” says John Peaveler, who as SDHS’s emergency services administrative lieutenant runs its Emergency Response Team. “We train and equip people who can help after disasters or cruelty events, and we also get valuable training through that.”
Safe Pets Means Safe People
Aside from protecting their well-being, rescuing and caring for pets has the added benefit of keeping humans safe. Responders have learned that people will go a long way to protect their pets—sometimes as far as endangering themselves or others. Historically, many people have ignored evacuation instructions because they could not bring pets along. Others have worsened dangerous situations by returning home to retrieve beloved furry friends. For those reasons and more, the response to any emergency in the U.S. includes evacuating, sheltering and providing veterinary care for animals, as well as reuniting lost pets with their owners.
“Animal welfare is critical to the overall success of any large-scale evacuation,” says Holly Porter, director of San Diego County’s Office of Emergency Services.
We may never know when the next emergency will occur, but we can take heart that when it does, our pets will be a top priority.
Hurricane Katrina Highlighted Pets’ Needs
It wasn’t always this way. During Hurricane Katrina, there was little focus on animals. Thousands of pets died. Many more were transported out of the region and, without plans for being returned to their owners, given up for adoption to other homes.
This dire situation prompted federal legislation. Signed into law in October 2006, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act requires local jurisdictions to include animal evacuation and sheltering as part of their emergency response.
“Katrina really awakened the country’s appreciation for having a plan to address animal welfare issues,” says Dr. Dick Green, senior director of disaster response for the ASPCA. “It was a turning point for us to bring animals to the forefront. Today, when we have a disaster, animals are right at the top of the list; we don’t have to wait for anything.”
Emergency managers must evacuate kennels, use proper transportation methods and tracking systems, and establish shelters in suitable locations, among other things. Even animal sellers and research facilities are encouraged, though not required, to have contingency plans.
It Starts with a Local Emergency Plan
Every disaster response begins with a community-scale emergency operation plan laying out how people, animals and property will be protected. It establishes who’s in charge, defines everyone’s duties and details mutual aid agreements with other agencies. These plans are developed by members of the community who will have a role to play; in the case of animal welfare, it’s often emergency managers, veterinarians, animal control officials and directors of humane shelters.
In the event of disaster, responders from these differing organizations are ready to work together. In one recent local example, the American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties coordinated with SDHS to shelter people and pets together during the 2017 Lilac Fire in North County. As the fire raged, pets were sheltered on tennis courts near a school gymnasium where their owners were staying. Similarly, during the 2018 West Fire, pet owners could move their cot into the pet shelter to sleep by their friend’s side.
Local emergency planners have only so many resources in a given region. Bigger disasters call for reinforcements.
Pitching In from Near and Far
When local resources are strained, emergency managers can call upon responders from outside the region who will be reimbursed for their work by the government. In large-scale emergencies, national organizations such as the ASPCA, American Humane Association, and Humane Society of the United States can bring their considerable resources to bear. One group, the nonprofit Wings of Rescue, flies sheltered pets out of disaster areas to make room for incoming animals. The ASPCA specializes in responding to significant incidents of abuse or neglect.
Some regions are better prepared than others. San Diego Humane Society’s Emergency Response Team is something of a model nationwide. The ERT consists of 165 people ready to spring into action to rescue or care for pets, manage tracking systems, run shelters—whatever’s needed.
“We have close partnerships with the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA,” Peaveler says. “When they’re going to respond to a disaster, we’re on their list of organizations they can contact and say we need X number of people.”
About two-thirds of large metropolitan areas have a dedicated animal welfare response team of some kind, according to Dr. Green of the ASPCA. “I can tell you that less than a quarter of those are on the level of SDHS,” he says. “We don’t request just any response partner. We want partners that are well trained and have experience we’re looking for. That’s why we lean on SDHS.”
Emergency preparedness tips for pet owners
Disasters like earthquakes and wildfires are major concerns here in San Diego, but pet owners can ease their minds by knowing what to do in an emergency and having a solid plan in place.
- Plan ahead. Evacuation shelters generally don’t accept pets, so make sure you and your family, pets included, have a safe place to go.
- Have your pet microchipped and outfit them with proper identification (collars and tags) that includes your cell phone number or the number of a friend or relative outside your immediate area.
- Don’t wait for mandatory evacuation orders. Leave early and take your pets.
- Make arrangements with a neighbor or someone else who’s comfortable with your pets in case disaster strikes when you’re away from home.
- For large animal or livestock owners, have an adequate number of trailers or travel containers to get all of your animals out safely and, if possible, coordinate with another rancher or boarding facility.
- Prepare a pet emergency kit.
Pet First Aid Basics
Brush up on the basics and download the Pet First Aid app from the Red Cross for a comprehensive guide.
To know whether dogs are dehydrated, gently pinch the skin between their shoulder blades. If it remains tented, they
Run cool water or place a cool compress on burned areas, then place a clean, moist cloth on the injury (without adding any ointment or jelly).
Lift an unconscious dog up by his hind legs to drain water from his airways, then lay him down with the head slightly lowered and check his airways, breathing and circulation. Perform CPR if needed.
Immediately remove dogs from smoky areas. Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include cherry-red gums, coughing, and discharge from eyes, mouth or nose.
Flush with a saline solution made from 1 tablespoon salt per quart of warm water.
Support Their Efforts
Get involved by learning more about the organizations keeping our animals safe during disasters, and consider making a donation.
San Diego Humane Society
Humane Society of the United States
Wings of Rescue