Animals Need a Plan for Natural Disasters Too

Image: IFAW

Human activity has nearly doubled the rate of natural disasters in the last quarter-century. And as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) explained in a new report out this week:

While many natural disasters cause great financial hardship and can tragically result in loss of human life, animals are often overlooked in the chaos.

  • From pets to livestock to service animals and even wildlife—animals share the burdens of natural disasters as do humans.
  • Though some may be able to find their way to safety, many others that are dependent on humans are made vulnerable by separation, confinement, or an inability to find food and shelter.
  • Sadly, domesticated animals, heavily dependent on human caretakers for survival, are often left to suffer alone.

Animals (both wild and domestic) are a valued component of human life and as we work to build our disaster response plans we cannot forget pets and wildlife–their lives are in our hands.

Why This Matters: According to IFAW, what differentiates a successful disaster response from a fiasco usually isn’t the plan itself, but the amount of practice that goes into each element, from establishing trust between government agencies and other stakeholders, to executing search and rescue operations in difficult conditions.

This means that we have to start preparing disaster contingency plans on a community level and practice them often–as plans aren’t worth the paper they’re written on if people don’t know what to do and where to go.

The Vision: The keys to minimizing damage are necessary at every rung of the social spectrum: in our homes, our communities, and at the municipal, county, state, and federal levels. As such,  IFAW strongly recommends following the first core principle of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) strategic plan, which is “to build a culture of preparedness”, admitting that it can be difficult to evacuate animals and provide them with shelter, food, and veterinary services, unless a system has already been established to design and carry out emergency plans.

To ensure that animals are properly incorporated into the emergency planning process, IFAW recommends the following:

  • Passing of laws regarding emergency operation plans that cover animal evacuation, rescue, and recovery;
  • Focusing on overall preparedness and training using overhead disaster management to ensure clear collaboration;
  • Ensuring the implementation of disaster-specific training to ensure team is well-versed on skill sets including logistics, planning, overhead management, animal care and control, and veterinary care;
  • More time and resources focused on planning and working together and coordination between authorities in the US, at every level from the individual to the community, to the states, municipalities, up to the federal level;
  • Ensuring that capacity exists to implement an emergency response systems Once a flood, wildfire, or earthquake hits. This should ensure critical equipment like medical supplies and communications technology is always available and in supply on site;
  • Authorities can also help to prevent future damage by requiring higher standards for new construction, encouraging building owners to follow “ember resistant” retrofitting and maintenance guidelines, and taking other preventive measures;
  • Securing wildlife corridors for animals to ensure an escape route as we ensure evacuation routes for human beings in the time of crisis.

According to the Michigan State University Animal Legal & Historical Center, as of 2016 over thirty states and the District of Columbia had passed laws or emergency operation plans covering animal evacuation, rescue, and recovery, but all 50 states need such provisions.

Advice for Pet Owners:

It just takes a few simple precautions to ensure that animals survive a disaster:

  1. Microchip your pet and register the information with a national database.
  2. Keep an emergency evacuation kit for your pet that includes medications, vaccination records, food and water, and a pet collar with an ID tag.
  3. Have a transport and sheltering kennel/carrier on hand.
  4. Contact your local emergency management agency for a list of pet-friendly hotels or shelters that allow co-location with animals. Agencies in high-risk disaster zones may also provide pre-registration for residents who need transportation during an emergency evacuation


From the Frontlines:

Before’s IFAW’s report came out we sat down to talk with Shannon Walajtys (Director of Disaster Response and Risk Reduction) and Kelly Johnston (Program Officer) about their experience responding to natural disasters on the ground for IFAW.

Both women spent their summers responding to California’s ongoing wildfires and made one thing clear: we have to stop merely reacting to natural disasters and instead refocus on preparing for a “new normal.” Our society is now at a point where we must prepare for the wrath we’ve created through climate change and not having a disaster preparedness plan for people and pets equates to burying one’s head in the sand.

Both Walajtys and Johnston expressed that due to the frequency and intensity that natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes now occur, first responders are often completely overwhelmed. It’s for that reason that they suggest that every person living in a region prone to disaster (pet owners especially) should not rely on first responders to save them and their animals and instead develop a “safety net”–a community of people who can help in an emergency.

And when it comes to animals, pet owners must have a plan to evacuate animals which includes an emergency contact who can save pets if their owners can’t get to them. For large animals, if people aren’t able to evacuate them, they must leave pens and kennels open so that animals can flee. The bottom line is that taking on the responsibility of an animal shouldn’t be done lightly. Pet owners must have the proper resources to care for and transport their pets as well.

As emergency workers continue to work on disaster response their levels of exhaustion and PTSD are very real. The best way to help these men and women is to create a community disaster plan that you and your neighbors have practiced. Preparedness is key to the survival of people and animals.


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