If you have never lived through a natural disaster, it can be hard to have true empathy for those who have. The images and news reports simply cannot do justice to the scope of the event in terms of structural or material losses and will never do justice to the human toll taken on those who have lived through it. Natural disasters change lives forever. They become a demarcation point between “before” and “after.” What life was like before the flood, tornado, earthquake, fire. What life is now after the flood, tornado, earthquake, fire. I don't expect everyone to think about what has transpired in Houston and other affected areas every day. I do think that those of us who have not been personally affected by the disaster owe it to those who have been to learn from what has taken place. There are lessons to be learned both in terms of our personal lives and in terms of how we want our country to handle disaster response in the future.
A lot of lessons have been learned from prior hurricanes. When it comes to how we manage companion animals, many lessons were learned from Hurricane Katrina, leading to enactment of the PETS Act. I was not involved in the response to Katrina, but I know people who were. People like Mike Fry of No Kill Learning who wrote the following in his blog for No Kill Movement entitled, "Harvey is Not Katrina: Lessons from the Trenches":
Following Katrina, a sizable group of people (including myself) worked diligently to ensure that the PETS Act was passed into law, providing safety and shelter for people and their pets in disasters. During Katrina, pets were forcibly taken from their evacuating families at gun point. Following Harvey, pets are being welcomed into evacuation shelters. Though there were some false starts, and some families with pets were initially kept out, a federal judge quickly set that right and gave notice that pets were to be accommodated. That has led to proactive life-saving of unprecedented proportions. When people can bring their pets with them, they are more willing to take shelter. If they can't, they often don't and needless human and non-human loss of life results.
After Katrina, we found several live pets curled up next to their dead owners, who died, because they could not leave their pets behind. The scope of that should be dramatically less (hopefully) in this current disaster.
Because there is no centralized system used to track animals helped by a myriad of organizations, however, there were will large numbers of owned pets who will never be accounted for. My sources who live in the Houston area or who are there helping with disaster response tell me that some organizations are taking potentially owned companion animals out of the state. At a glance this may look like a good idea; the focus should be on saving lives. I would like to think the organizations doing this mean well with the possible exception of PETA which I fully expect will kill each and every animal it “rescues.” But here's the thing. Those animals belong to someone and we owe it to those people to do everything we can to keep potentially owned pets in the immediate area so people can find them.
When I called the practice of removing potentially owned animals from the area “pet looting” on my Facebook page recently, I got a lot of mixed reactions. Some from outside the area are quick to assume that pets are displaced from people due to some form of irresponsibility and that those people don't “deserve” to get their pets back. Not so fast. Here is the scenario I posed on my Facebook page:
You're at your house near Houston. It is not yet flooded. You think you're going to be safe. The Army Corps of Engineers opens a dam and with very little warning your house begins filling up with water. You frantically start grabbing things to load up in a vehicle in hopes that you can get out in time. In the process of loading things into a vehicle your dog gets out. You had him leashed and with you all the time, but he's scared and feeding off of your fear so he pulls away from you. You call for him. You search high and low, but you have to go. Authorities come along, telling you to get in a rescue vehicle right now. You say, "but I don't know where my dog is," and they say, "don't worry. Someone will find your dog and take care of him." You panic and you leave as you call out for your dog.
The personal lessons we must all learn are a lot less complicated than trying to figure out a solid disaster response plan for all pets.
The first and most important thing all of us can, and should, do is to have our pets microchipped so they can be identified if they are displaced from us for any reason. You may never have to survive a natural disaster, but you may still have a pet go missing due to an open door or open gate. You may have a dog or cat flee in fear due to fireworks. Your pet may be stolen from you. The best way to ensure your pets can be identified is using a microchip which is implanted under the skin and which contains a unique number which can be traced back to you after you have registered it. Unlike collars or tags with may fall off or be removed, the microchip is subcutaneous and can be scanned by a host of authorities from animal control personnel to rescuers to veterinary offices to law enforcement authorities. The cost of having your pet chipped is nominal compared to the costs you may incur trying to find your pet, not to mention the emotional and psychological toll it may take on your and your family. A microchip is not a GPS device (although those are available, with a limited battery life) but it is the best possible way to ensure your pet can be identified quickly and easily.
And while you're doing all of that, please stop to remember that there are people in Texas who are suffering. Their lives have been forever changed. Have some compassion and empathy for those people and don't be so quick to judge them. You cannot possibly say that you know how you would behave under extreme stress unless you have lived through it yourself. The image below? That's our tornado shelter. I have my plans. Do you have yours?