Natural disasters such as floods, wildfires and tornados can devastate a community, cause widespread health concerns and push families out of their homes. We’re all concerned that the humans caught in these circumstances are taken care of, but what about the pets that live in the area? How can we help them survive and stay with their human caretakers? We talk to a Humane Society spokesperson who has seen his share of disasters about keeping your pets safe and secure during a catastrophe.
Jeff Dorson, Executive Director of the Humane Society of Louisiana
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Saving Animal Disaster Victims
Marty Peterson: Recently, we did a story on how people can prepare their homes and their families for a disaster, but humans aren’t the only ones who can become victims in floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and fires – so can their pets and livestock. We talked to Jeff Dorson, Executive Director of the Humane Society of Louisiana about preparing animals for disasters. He and his organization are still helping animals and their owners after the great flood in the state last August, and he says that they will be continuing their efforts for months to come. He said they started in only one parish – what they call counties — although there were many more parishes that needed the Humane Society’s help.
Jeff Dorson: And about 15 or 16 were flooded out. So we only operated in one. We started on day four which is still too late, in our opinion. Maybe day one-and-a-half or two you can still save lives. But we were able to rescue 500, pretty much out of the water, literally, but we’ve also done other things to ensure that we can provide services called “sheltering in place.” If we see community animals that have been left behind and we simply leave food and water for them so that we can at least sustain life until we can get back to them. So we have about 16 different water and food stations as we talk throughout the parish that we’re operating in, and as we move animals through our sheltering system we’ll take more off the street. So it’s a long, complicated process and most people don’t realize that after the flood there’s months of recovery. And animals are still lingering and need our support throughout the incident.
Peterson: Dorson says that pet owners are understandably anxious about getting themselves out of harm’s way during a flood or other disaster. Often they pack up the kids and a few belongings and head off without thinking much about some of their most vulnerable family members.
Dorson: Believe it or not we found dead dogs on chains. We found dead dogs in carriers on tabletops. We found virtually every type of imaginable thing that could have been prevented. That’s the sad thing. Notice the pet owners sure got out in time, but they didn’t have any thought for their wonderful animals having to deal with the horrible situation all by themselves in the dark with the water rising. I’m not a happy camper when I come upon those scenes. Anything in any type of enclosure is pretty much dependent on you for its food source and life and comfort, and take that away and they can’t survive. So we have come into homes that have been evacuated and, sure enough, there’s a turtle, a rabbit a small animal, and in an aquarium or cage. They can’t survive more than a day or two or three. And they suffer.
Peterson: Not only were family pets caught in the water, Dorson says some livestock were also left behind with little chance to beat the floodwaters.
Dorson: We saw countless livestock stuck in the high water up to their necks and chins and that was a very regrettable situation that could have been avoided. And look at the livestock populations that are affected. They have to move to higher ground, they’re orphaned or separated and then their food source is contaminated by the water. Nor can they eat for several days because water is everywhere. So it’s a very complicated, complex thing that affects our entire ecosystem.
Peterson: Animals that are left to fend for themselves in a flood – even if they can find higher ground – are often found sick when a rescuer helps them to safety.
Dorson: Virtually anything that is surrounded by contaminated water will get bacterial infections on their skin, in their lungs, in their mouths and their respiratory systems. We have to have a lot of antibiotics on hand for the animals we rescue, because virtually all of them come down with that. Their immune system is weakened, they’re stressed out, they’re in a foreign environment, their lives are upside down. So it takes enormous amount of resources to quickly triage these animals once we pull them out of the water.
Peterson: Everyone has seen a dog or a cat swimming in a pond or a pool, and the idea is that these animals can swim to safety if they get caught in a flood. But, how long can they swim?
Dorson: Probably only as long as you and I can. They’re desperate to get to high land; they’re confused and scared, so the answer is it really varies. We did find one cat screaming at the top of its lungs on day five on a tree branch that was in four or five feet of water. So it’s hard to answer that question but truly, they are just terrified. They don’t adapt well to water, they don’t understand what’s happening. It’s not a good situation for them.
Peterson: When the Humane Society rescues an animal, Dorson says there’s a process that they go through to stabilize the animal and try to find out who they belong to. It’s very labor intensive, and not easy on the Society or the pets.
Dorson: You’ve got to calm it down and perform a health evaluation. What is it suffering from? Comfort it. Determine its immediate health needs. You need a vet tech or a veterinarian to determine then the level of medication, if any. Second thing is vaccinate. You don’t want put an animal into a general population of other animals without vaccinating it. Third is put it in a nice, quiet area so it can start to calm down and adapt and monitor it and socialize it. Those are the different various stages in recovery.
Peterson: Dorson says that the Society has limited resources for going out and rescuing animals from floodwaters. Luckily, though, there were a lot of animal lovers who pitched in and helped during this last flood.
Dorson: We saw lots of people in homemade kayaks and boats rescuing people and dogs off roofs, everything. It’s really a community, people-inspired effort to save these animals and pets. We didn’t see a lot of National Guard, although they were present. The city folk outnumbered the state and national people 20 to 1. They just got in boats and saved lives.
Peterson: So how do you effectively help your pet weather a flood or another disaster? Dorson says that many of the measures you take to prevent your human family from harm work for your animal family members as well.
Dorson: Have pet carriers for your animals. Have a travel destination. A lot of people get in the car and they don’t realize where they’re going so make sure you are in touch with a relative who can take you or someplace out of the danger zone. Have your medical records for your pets with you. Make sure your animal is micro chipped or tagged or tattooed. A photograph of you and your pet would be a critical piece of helping us determine if that’s your animal. And have cash and fuel ready. We’ve discovered that people don’t plan ahead and so they actually, they’ve run out of gas in some of these evacuations.
Peterson: Micro chipping your dog or cat and banding your bird or reptile can help reunite you and your pet should they get lost in the chaos. However, the chip is registered with the microchip company that your veterinarian uses with his or her identification, and Dorson says that it’s helpful if you contact that company and put your own information in their database. Dorson says that in big disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the recent flood, emergency response organizations find temporary shelters for families to use until they can get back on their feet. But what about the animals? Where do they get to live?
Dorson: It’s called “side-by-side” sheltering. After Katrina, when everything was thrown into chaos and we realized we didn’t do a very good job on behalf of the pets and their owners, federal and state laws were passed to ensure that pets have safe passage along with their owners. Because in Katrina, sometimes the police or National Guard demanded that the people leave their pets behind. And that was heartbreaking. Some people wouldn’t leave their pets behind. Some were arrested and taken out of their house forcefully. So everything that could have gone wrong did. So these laws were passed to prevent those situations from occurring. They’re not perfect, but they do set a better standard of care so the Red Cross has their shelters for people and they now have to have some area set aside for pets. It’s not perfect, because we’ve had to go around during this last flood and make sure that those pets had clean kennels, water and food and most of them did not.
Peterson: There is, however, a new facility in the area that is taking better care of the animals caught in the latest Louisiana flood.
Dorson: We just opened up the area’s first pet relief center and it’s in Amite, Louisiana, which is about an hour and a half northwest of New Orleans. And it’s a very large, wonderful horse arena and in the stalls are shavings and wonderful dogs that have been rescued from the flood. So, believe it or not, this is an ongoing operation.
Peterson: Dorson says that after everything calms down and as many people as possible are reunited with their pets, the Humane Society still has many unclaimed animals in its care. What happens to those lost dogs, cats and others?
Dorson: Luckily we have a lot shelters around the country who realize our, the emergency situation, so we transport animals out as long as they agree not to euthanize them for any reason. Because what’s the point? We’ve rescued them from the flood; we sure don’t want to see them have to be euthanized for space issues. So we have a lot of called “no-kill partners” who have agreed to these policies of safe passage and no kill. So luckily we’re only talking a few hundred more animals off the streets and they’re going to find good homes.
Peterson: Jeff Dorson says that you can find all sorts of strategies for keeping your pets safe during a disaster and stories of rescues and adoption opportunities on the Humane Society of Louisiana’s website at Humanela.org, or call 1-888-6-HUMANE. You can also find them on Facebook. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.