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Preparing Animals for Natural Disasters

July 23, 2021 by Ansley Puckett
Jonathan Harvey wades through floodwaters on Aug. 29, 2005. (John Bazemore, Associated Press)

Hurricane season is underway and climate experts warn of increasingly severe and frequent storms. Animal advocacy groups are reminding the public and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect animals during natural disasters. 

Often left out of disaster planning and with no way to protect themselves, advocacy groups argue that animals are also in need of disaster planning for events like storms, fires and other natural disasters. 

According to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, leaving animals behind during natural disasters is not only dangerous for the animals but also dangerous for the first responders that go into affected areas to rescue animals. 

The ASPCA deploys rescuers to scenes nationwide after disasters and they have seen the consequences of leaving animals behind firsthand. Andrew Binovi, senior manager of federal legislation for the ASPCA, said animals in research facilities and businesses are particularly at risk. 

“One of the lessons learned from Katrina is that there was a medical school research lab that was overrun with flood water during Katrina, and 8,000 animals died there, including dogs and monkeys,” Binovi said. “So, when we’re talking about these facilities, we’re talking about a particularly large number of animals.” 

After Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed the PETS Act, which mandated that local and state response agencies receiving federal funds must establish emergency preparedness plans that account for the needs of pets. 

Phyllis Anderson and her cat, Trouble, are evacuated from their flooded home on Sept. 1, 2005. (Mari Darr-welch, Associated Press)

In 2012, the USDA delayed requiring disaster planning for animals regulated by the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act, which regulates the treatment of animals in research and exhibition, just two days after facilities were supposed to have plans in place. 

Since that delay, there has been no federal requirement for facilities regulated by the AWA to have preparedness plans in place for animals. As climate change worsens and natural disasters become more frequent, animal advocacy groups argue that it is increasingly more important to have disaster planning for animals. 

“It’s more important now than ever that facilities that are regulated by USDA under the Animal Welfare Act have a disaster plan in place and to ensure that those employees at those facilities are trained with what to do when a disaster strikes,” Binovi said. 

In response, Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., and Dina Titus, D-Nev., joined by more than 115 co-sponsors, reintroduced a bill in February to mandate preparedness planning by facilities regulated under the Animal Welfare Act. 

The PREPARED Act, which stands for Providing Responsible Emergency Plans for Animals at Risk of Emerging Disasters, set a timeline for the USDA to reexamine the delay and consider implanting a disaster plan requirement for facilities regulated by the AWA. 

Under the PREPARED Act, facilities licensed and regulated by the USDA like animal-research facilities, commercial breeders and zoos will be required to plan and train for disasters and emergencies. 

“Sadly, through countless disasters, we’ve witnessed that if animal facilities do not have a plan in place when an emergency strikes, it is already too late,” Titus said in a February release. “The safety of animals shouldn’t be an afterthought. This bipartisan bill will ensure that zoos, commercial breeders, and research centers are able to save the lives of animals under their care by preparing for disasters ahead of time.” 

In June, the USDA followed the bill’s directive by announcing a proposed new rule, which would require disaster plans for animals at AWA regulated facilities for both manmade and natural disasters. 

“This rule is something that we’ve been working to get implemented since it was delayed,” Binovi said. “Whether Congress does it or USDA does it, the important thing that happens is that animals that are in AWA regulated facilities have protection from a disaster. That’s what the ASPCA is seeking and we’re very happy to see the USDA moving forward with this proposed rule.” 

Planning for Your Pet 

The ASPCA also urges pet owners to plan for their own pets in the case of a natural disaster. Binovi encourages pet owners to take their pets with them in the case of evacuation. 

“If it’s not safe for you, it’s not safe for your pet, and the last thing you want to do is tether your pet in the backyard,” Binovi said. “That seems almost like a no-brainer, but frankly, we’ve seen bad things happen because then an animal can definitely not escape floodwater, for example.” 

The ASPCA also urges pet owners to keep pet IDs and microchips up to date so that animals can be identified in the case of a rescue. Preparing a pet emergency kit with medical records, water, food and any needed medicine is also important to keep on hand in the case of an emergency. 

If pet owners need to evacuate their home for a non-emergency-related event or disaster, Binovi encourages designating a friend or family member outside of an affected area to take care of the family pet. 

“It goes without saying that if you have an animal, whether in your business or your house pet, you should be responsible for taking care of that animal in a disaster,” Binovi said. 

The USDA is soliciting public comments on the importance of disaster planning for animals until Aug. 24. The ASPCA will be collecting these comments on its website to deliver to the USDA until the deadline. 

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