It has been more than a week since Hurricane Harvey first made landfall in southern Texas. I heard last night that even more people were being evacuated from west Houston as water from more reservoirs was released by the Army Corps of Engineers. These are people who surely thought they had made it through the worst and they would not have to leave their homes. As I was watching the news, it got me thinking about how quickly many people have moved on both mentally and emotionally from the events of the last week. I'm always amazed at how short our attention spans are when it comes to disasters. Perhaps we are too easily swayed by news cycles. Perhaps we are just so focused on what is on our personal radar that we become callous to the tragedies of others which are far removed from our own lives. We see the images, hear the stories, maybe make a donation or two and then are back to normal for the most part.
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.
Lessons Learned in Terms of Disaster Response
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.
Much has changed since Hurricane Katrina regarding how people are sheltered with their pets as opposed to being forced to leave them behind. One thing which was apparently not learned from Katrina was 1) how to manage how pets are rescued and by whom; 2) how rescued pets are accounted for; and 3) where those pets can and cannot be taken. I know of a number of groups which went to the predicted path of of the storm before it made landfall or shortly thereafter which pulled animals from shelters in the predicted path of the storm. They did this to keep animals safe, but also to free up space in those shelters for owned animals who may later be displaced. I support that type of rescue.
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.
I think it is easy for people to find fault with those who did not leave the Houston area with their pets or who were displaced from their pets. I get that. But it's not always the result of irresponsibility. How in the world are people supposed to find their pets if they've been taken away to another state? What website are they supposed to check? Where are they supposed to go? Who can they call? Because there are no answers to any of those questions, my hope is the lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey include how we account for companion animals handled in any way by any organization whether they are housed locally, housed in nearby areas or removed from the state. I honestly don't know how we would go about tracking animals like we track people. I trust there must be some way to do that and that just hope that there are some people "out there" who are already working on this issue.
Personal Lessons We Must Learn
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.
The second important thing all of us can, and should, do is to simply have a plan in the event of a natural disaster. If you had to evacuate an area, where would your pets go? If you were away from home when a mandatory evacuation order was imposed, how would anyone know that you have pets in your home or yard? Do you have friends or family who could house your pets for you if you could not find space in a FEMA shelter and take your pets with you? None of us likes to think we will ever have to endure a natural disaster and go through what the people of Texas have endured in the last couple of weeks. We have fires all over. We now have earthquakes in places where they never occurred before. We have tornadoes in New York. For the sake of all of your family members, both human and animal, please have a plan and please prepare for the worst.
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?
(flooding image courtesy of Illinois Public Media)
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson