Fragilecologies

Modern Noah's Ark: Animal-Rescue Teams

April 16, 1997
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzEach part of America has its own natural hazards. Tornadoes, fires, blizzards, droughts, and floods — each in its own way takes a heavy toll on people and property ... AND ... on pets and on other living creatures.

Some people think that the number, intensity, and frequency of disasters have increased in recent years. Recent news clips have told us about the human hardships brought about by sub-zero temperatures in Minnesota, floods in North Dakota, hurricanes along the southeast coast of the US, earthquakes in California, drought in Texas, and so forth. These are heart-wrenching stories, often accompanied by photos or video clips. These visuals make it possible for others, far removed from the particular disaster area of the moment, to watch people anguish over the loss of their property and, in some cases, their family, friends, and neighbors.

In isolated instances we get to hear about the miraculous rescue of a dog on a rooftop in a flood, a cat trapped in a closet during a fire, a horse rescued by helicopter from rising floodwaters, or whales trapped by ice floes in Arctic waters. But these instances represent only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of animal rescue efforts during natural and manmade disasters.

People from around the country are being trained to search for and rescue animals that are separated from their owners as a result of natural disasters. They are also trained in reuniting pets and their owners after they have become separated during a disaster situation. Many of these animals are not voluntarily abandoned by their owners.

What do you do when the police bang on your door at some ungodly hour, telling you that you have five minutes to evacuate your home because of rising flood waters or noxious chemical fumes that have been released nearby in a railcar crash? You get dressed, grab a few photos perhaps and some valued items, and then you are forced to leave for a few hours. The pet stays. There's no room in the evacuation vehicle for all the pets in the neighborhood. Furthermore, it will take time to round up many of the pets. And, assuming you could do this, pets are not allowed in Red Cross emergency shelters. So, the pets are often left behind. Then, after several hours, you find out from the authorities that you may not be able to return home for a week or two. What then?

The American Humane Association (AHA), often working with local SPCA and other groups, comes to the rescue. Based in Englewood, Colorado, this organization has been called upon for decades by local authorities from all around the country to rescue animals at risk from all kinds of disasters. The AHA has created a Disaster Designee Team to assess a community's and animal shelter's needs immediately after a disaster hits, to coordinate animal rescue operations, and to provide emergency veterinary care if local veterinary services are disabled. The AHA's Animal Disaster Relief Unit has produced a list of things you can do to protect your pets in the event a disaster should strike (have a recent photo of your pet, store food and water in a portable kennel, identify motels that allow animals, etc.). It has also recently commissioned a mobile, all-purpose communications unit to dispatch to disaster areas in order to save time.

Concern about the welfare of pets is not recent. The AHA has its roots in the need to take care of the horses and mules that were used for military service during World War I. These animals transported supply wagons, ambulances, traveling kitchens, water carts, light artillery, and shells. The AHA also distributed gas masks for horses, fearing the use of poison gases. In that war, about 250,000 horses and mules served the country's military effort, at home and abroad.

The list of animal disaster relief activities is long. Some examples are as follows: provided food for 8,000 starving elk in Yellowstone; aided animals suffering from the Midwest drought in 1931; helped injured and homeless animals affected by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki in 1992, and the 1994 earthquake in California; coordinated the shipment of tons of pet food to the southwestern US and to the 150 flood-affected communities along the Mississippi, and so on.

It is good to know that organizations concerned with animal disaster relief do exist. The AHA has had a partnership with the American Red Cross since the mid-1970s. Most recently, they have been trying to work out an arrangement so that pets can be rescued at the same time as are their owners.

It was only by accident that I discovered the AHA on the Internet. Now, when I watch the evening news and see stories about abandoned pets, I will feel somewhat more comfort in knowing that there are professionals focusing their efforts on rescuing the animal victims of every kind of natural disaster.

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