When we fall victim to Mother Nature, our pets do, too. They haven’t been secretly stockpiling bits of food in anticipation of a disaster or planning an escape route, so they need a place in our in-case-of-emergency plans.
The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LA/SPCA) estimates that about 15,000 animals were rescued during and after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Only about 15-20 percent were ever reunited with their families.
Many disaster shelters do not accept pets for health or safety reasons. Some may take them, but keep them in a separate section of the shelter. Under the 2006 PETS Act, FEMA mandates that all state and local governments must have an emergency evacuation plan that addresses the needs of household pets and service animals. Without such a plan, governments can’t get reimbursed for the resources expended in response to a disaster.
In San Diego, two of the agencies responsible for helping reunite rescued pets with their families – the San Diego Humane Society/SPCA and the San Diego County Department of Animal Services – have a locked-down system in place to deal with animals separated from their humans. They collect lost pets, meticulously document their circumstances and set up temporary shelters to deal with overflow. They run tabletop exercises and real scenario drills and practice with other agencies like the Red Cross and CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) to make sure they’ve properly prepared themselves to deal with a flood of free-running domestic animals.
“We’re pretty happy with the system we have in place,” said Lt. Kalani Hudson of the San Diego County Department of Animal Services. “It has worked well, but every time we have a situation, we learn from it. Actually, we’re pretty highly recognized in the state and the nation for how we run things. We’re on the leading edge.”
After wildfires devastated hundreds of homes in San Diego County in 2007, livestock and pets were collected and sheltered by both the Department of Animal Services and the San Diego Humane Society. All of the livestock eventually found its way back to its rightful owners and only a few dogs and cats, considered to be strays, were left behind, according to Lt. DJ Gove of the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA.
In response to the deadly tornado that flattened Joplin, Mo. on May 22, the Joplin Humane Society currently has on its website’s home page a list of pets about 200 strong waiting to be reclaimed. During our own local disasters, such as the 2003 and 2007 wildfires, the SDHS and Department of Animal Services worked hand-in-hand to create similar web lists, identifying animals with a photo and a paper trail documenting where it was picked up and under what circumstances.
“We really document and categorize all the animals, and each time we get better at it,” Gove said. “We have very strict standards for identification when people come back for a pet. We saw a huge difference between the ’03 and ’07 fires in the number of pets we reunited [with families].”
Both Gove and Hudson had one major piece of advice when it comes to disaster preparedness plans: “Have one,” they echoed.
“Have a plan, practice it, make adjustments and practice it for different situations,” Gove said.
“It’s also important to go out and network with your neighbors and to work together,” added Hudson. “You might not be home during a disaster to evacuate your pet, but your neighbor might be.”
Both Gove and Hudson recommended microchipping, and even more importantly, making sure pets’ microchips are registered to the correct address.
After the plans have been set and drills have been run, the real test will be in the heat of the moment. Hudson advised evacuation plans be set in motion – early.
“Go ahead and evacuate early,” she said. “You don’t want the added stress of getting out in 15 minutes, especially if you have pets or small children. If [the emergency] ends up being nothing, then you just went for a nice drive with your pets.”
Both the Department of Animal Services and the San Diego Humane Society have tips for including pets in residents’ evacuation plans. For more information, visit www.sddac.com or www.sdhumane.org.
The San Diego Humane Society and SPCA’s Animal Rescue Reserve (ARR), a team equipped to rescue animals threatened by natural and man-made disasters and other emergency situations, celebrated 40 years of service on May 22.
The ARR, which has 71 volunteer members, celebrated past and current members, some of whom have committed more than 30 years of service, for their contributions to rescuing and evacuating animals in times of need.
ARR was formed after the 1970 Laguna Fire and has been involved in rescue efforts during the 2002 Pines Fire, 2003 Firestorms, 2006 Horse Fire, 2007 Harris and Witchcreek fires, the La Jolla landslides and has aided relief efforts for disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike.
In addition to responding during times of local and national disaster, ARR also works throughout San Diego County to rescue domestic animals or livestock that are trapped and cannot free themselves.