Animal welfare during disaster response

I was asked recently to make a presentation to New Brunswick emergency management personnel and planners about animal welfare during disaster responses. Traditionally animal welfare — in particular, consideration of people’s pets — has been ignored during emergency management planning. Most community plans don’t provide provisions to protect pets. Most shelters won’t accept pets. Emergency responders are unlikely to prioritize pet care or pet rescue. That leaves pet owners with some pretty ugly choices when disaster strikes. Do they save their pets, or do they save themselves?

That choice, and the fact that many pet owners will put themselves at serious risk by making the wrong choice, is why emergency management personnel need to take this issue seriously. We’ve seen examples of how a failure to address this has put residents at risk. In Katrina, people died because they wouldn’t evacuate without their pets.

The risk of fatalities aside, planners and responders need to recognize that cultural values have changed. Pets are no longer property, no longer a replaceable commodity for families. For many people, particularly seniors, their pet is likely to be their family.

The solution isn’t easy but it is necessary. Disaster response plans need to give citizens options for pet care, and instill the confidence needed to enable effective evacuations. Sheltering must be provided for pets — either in the form of pet-friendly reception centres or separate emergency animal shelters. The public must be educated about pets and disasters to ensure that pet owners are prepared, and to demonstrate that emergency management plans will protect companion animals.

Here’s a link to the October 21st presentation and associated materials. If you’re a planner, give some thought to integrating animal welfare into your plans for preparation, response and recovery. If you’re a pet owner, find out what you need to do to ready yourself and your pet in case disaster strikes.

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