The Evolution of Planning for Animals in Disasters

A man runs into an evacuation zone to rescue his dog. A woman refuses to leave her home in the face of danger because she cannot find her cat. A family is turned away from a shelter because they do not want to leave their pets behind. In all of these cases, people are willing to sacrifice themselves and, in some cases, endanger responders for the good of their pets, so related emergency plans must be in place.

Animals are a large part of daily life in the United States, whether kept for livelihood or companionship. In many households, they are considered part of the family, no different than children. In the 2013 Black Forest fire outside Colorado Springs, CNN interviewed a man that went back into the evacuation zone to rescue his dogs. When asked why he would put his own life in danger, he quickly responded that they were part of the family. People willing to intentionally endanger themselves also endanger responders and compromise the management of an emergency or disaster. Through collaboration and communication, emergency management professionals can reduce or eliminate such situations that endanger their community members, animals, and first responders.

The Human-Animal Bond

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) defines the human-animal bond as, “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and other animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, other animals, and the environment.” In an article (2006) entitled, “Placing the Human-Animal Bond in Context in the Face of Disasters,” AVMA noted that, due to a lack of more traditional support systems in modern society, companion animals for many people are the sole source of emotional and social support, providing significant psychological and physical health benefits, especially to children, the elderly, the disabled, the mentally and physically ill, and the incarcerated. Given this bond, they believe that, “When disasters strike, saving animals means saving people.”  

Since the passage of two key animal-related pieces of legislation shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the human-animal bond and the critical importance of planning for human and animal needs in emergencies and disasters is more at the forefront of emergency management than ever before. The Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act was signed into law in October of 2006 to amend the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to, “ensure that state and local emergency preparedness operational plans address the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals following a major disaster or emergency.” The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA), also passed in 2006, strengthened Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) preparedness and response capabilities andentified new responsibilities for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/FEMA in coordinating implementation of the PETS Act.

Post-Katrina Initiatives

Pre-Hurricane Katrina, there was very little effective communication, collaboration, or partnership between the groups involved in animal rescue and sheltering – let alone in combination with the emergency management community. In those days, very few communities were actively addressing animal issues. Typically, those who arrived at the disaster area first declared themselves as the lead agency and assumed “command.” Self-deployment occurred too frequently and teams were not adequately trained in incident management or command. Times have certainly changed. Communication and collaboration are at the core of these changes. It became widely accepted that no one group could do it all (and do it well) by working in a vacuum but, by communicating with one another and working together, more animal lives were saved. Two national post-Katrina initiatives that have affected all levels of animal emergency planning were the formation of the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition (NARSC) and the National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs (NASAAEP).

NARSC has developed and grown into a strong coalition of 14 national, nongovernmental organizations representing millions of animal welfare, animal care, and animal control professionals, volunteers, and pet owners. Participants in the coalition include the most experienced, qualified animal rescue and sheltering management professionals in the country, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®). This collaborative approach among the groups offers opportunities for emergency management to have one-stop shopping when considering back-up resources to what they have locally. It also offers a wide variety of subject matter expertise and opportunities for training.

NASAAEP continues to foster and construct a national network of state-level stakeholders to promote effective, all-hazards animal and agricultural emergency management; nearly all states have participated in the monthly calls or summits since its inception. In addition to enhancing communication and collaboration among states, NASAAEP has published best practices for key animal issues that occur during emergencies such as sheltering, transportation, and even zoo preparedness, among others. The best practices working groups are an assembly of the best and brightest in animal and agricultural issues in emergency management today. NASAAEP state representatives often reside within the state department of agriculture or board of animal health, and agencies should connect with them and keep abreast of state planning efforts and resources.

Organizing Community Animal Response Teams

Although there have been significant national strides, it is imperative for local communities to have the capability and plans to respond to animals during disasters. Many communities have formed animal coalitions tasked with planning and responding to animals in disasters. The group or committee may eventually earn the name of Community Animal Response Team (CART) and be an integral piece of community planning and response. If there is no CART, there are many resources available now to help initiate and sustain a CART’s development, whether by simply asking a successful neighboring community to borrow their paperwork for reference or turning to a group like the ASPCA, which can help assist with the process as well. The ASPCA not only funds disaster-related grants, but also has a special Midwestern Disaster Resiliency Program geared toward helping states and communities create animal response teams, providing training, and funding disaster equipment. Since launching the program a few months ago, the ASPCA has given more than $50,000 to communities in disaster-prone areas to enhance their ability to respond to animals and pet owners affected by disasters.

Attending to animals in disasters has certainly changed in the past 20 years. An overall shift in the thought process has occurred, recognizing the human-animal bond as being a safety issue for the community at large and first responders. Where there are human issues, animal issues will follow. Communication and collaboration on all levels of government have provided useful resources, more training, and stable relationships from which to build and improve planning efforts to keep people, their pets, and first responders safe. By continuing to work together, government and nongovernment agencies can keep this trend going and continue to save more lives.

Organizations interested in applying for funding or assistance through the Midwestern Disaster Resiliency Program may contact

Richard Green

Richard (Dick) Green is the senior director of disaster response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Before the ASPCA, he was the emergency relief manager for disasters at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). He has responded to well over a hundred international and national disasters. International responses include typhoons in Taiwan, Philippines, and Australia, volcano eruptions in Philippines and Iceland, and earthquakes in China, Haiti, and Japan. Recent domestic responses include the Hawaii lava flow, Butte County Fire, Santa Barbara Mudslides, and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Florence. He has trained hundreds of responders in disaster prevention and response and has developed training curricula for Slackwater Rescue, Water Rescue for Companion Animals, and Rope Rescue for Companion Animals. His book, “Animals in Disasters,” was published in February 2019.

Elizabeth Serca-Dominguez

Elizabeth Serca-Dominguez, disaster response manager at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, works to strengthen the disaster response capacity of Midwest states most vulnerable to natural disasters by providing disaster response training, rescue equipment, and disaster planning expertise to local animal response teams. Prior to joining the ASPCA, she led the state animal response teams in both Florida and Texas – two of the most hurricane-prone states. She was a founding member of the Board of Directors for the National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs (NASAAEP), a collaborative alliance of state programs charged with planning for, preparing for, and responding to disasters involving animals. She received a Bachelor of Science with honors from the University of Florida (UF) in Environmental Management in Agriculture, as well as a Master of Science with honors from UF in Agricultural and Biological Engineering.



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