Planning is essential to protecting animals in cities and ranches during disasters

The severe weather caused by Hurricane Harvey has not yet affected the animals. It is possible that millions of animals, including pets and livestock, were affected by the disaster. Now, Irma has brewed in the Caribbean.

According to the pet owner calculator of the American Veterinary Medical Association, more than 30% of Houston’s 2 million households had at least one cat or dog before Harvey hit. Houston has a large problem with stray dogs and cats. In Texas, cattle are a big industry. Their numbers are, therefore, more accurate. In the 54 counties affected, there were approximately 1.2 million beef cattle and about 5,000 dairy cows. There were also beloved backyard horses and goats, as well as chickens, pigs, and a few pigs.

I am a member of Colorado State University’s Veterinarian Extension Team. As such, I assist citizens and communities to protect and care for their animals. Animals, including pets and livestock, present different challenges. However, communities must plan to create partnerships with disaster professionals, agricultural extension agents, veterinary health specialists, and animal welfare organizations.

It is important to establish animal evacuation teams, which are trained to save animals safely. There should also be procedures and volunteers who have been trained to set up temporary shelters for animals. Untrained, well-meaning volunteers who are not part of larger rescue operations may hinder the response and put humans and animals at risk.

Residents from two Colorado counties who took part in developing their community’s animal disaster response plans explain the importance of this process and how to start.

Pets and service animals

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina prompted the policy of saving pets. Emergency response teams in New Orleans were overwhelmed with the task of protecting people and their pets. It’s estimated that almost 600,000 pets died or were left stranded. More than half of those who didn’t evacuate did so because they couldn’t take their pets. They put themselves and the first responders at greater risk by remaining.

In 2006, Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act. This amended the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act in order to ensure that emergency preparedness plans for state and local governments addressed the needs of people who have household pets and service dogs after major disasters. In the last decade, the implementation of the PETS Act on a local level has demonstrated that when emergency planning includes animals, lives are saved, and most pets will be reunited successfully with their owners after a disaster.

As disasters unfold, challenges remain. Many pets who their owners did not claim or those whose owners are no longer able to care for them will be left without homes when temporary animal shelters shut down. After a disaster, the problem is exacerbated by a housing shortage where fewer landlords will accept families with pets.

While the PETS Act focuses specifically on household pets and service animals, it does not include many species people consider pets, like snakes or tropical birds. Shelters might not be able to accommodate farm or exotic animals, which their owners consider pets.

Birds were displaced from Galveston Island by Hurricane Ike in 2008 at the local shelter set up by the Humane Society. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

The law also does not recognize the emotional support animal. This designation is relatively new for animals who provide therapeutic benefits to owners through companionship rather than performing tasks like service dogs. Support animals owners may be surprised to find that they are not welcome in shelters as service animals would be.

Planning for disaster animals within a community includes identifying the types of animals that are present and finding suitable facilities for them. A warehouse is designated as a shelter for household pets and as a fairground to house horses, goats, and chickens. The plans should include the provision of trained staff as well as appropriate food supplies for each shelter type.

Rescues at the Range

In emergency management, the safety of people is given priority over saving property. This includes livestock. For livestock owners, animals are not just a source of income but also a way to live. Farmers and ranchers are prepared for emergencies and disasters because their livelihoods depend on the land. They are also ready for isolation because they work in rural areas.

While Harvey was brewing on the Gulf of Mexico, Texas ranchers began moving their cattle to higher ground in case Harvey headed towards them. Cattle producers kept large amounts of fresh water and feed near their animals and generators to control the operation running.

Dairy farmers have different strategies because cows do not stop producing milk in disasters. Owners must shelter their animals and make sure that the milk is delivered and picked up at processing plants. During Harvey’s first week, milk pickup was unaffected at Texas dairy farms. However, drivers were not always on time because they had to find alternate routes to deliver the milk.

Texas has a well-organized network of farmers and ranchers who form strong support before disasters. The Texas Animal Health Commission is equipped with a well-trained, organized Animal Response Team, which includes representatives from federal and state agencies as well as Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Extension Service and industry groups. The team met before Harvey to coordinate emergency operations.

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