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Issue of pets in disasters must be taken seriously

Issue of pets in disasters must be taken seriously, University of Canterbury expert says

May 18, 2014

A University of Canterbury expert says it has taken some time and hard lessons for the emergency management sector to take the issue of pets in disasters seriously.

In the September 2010 Canterbury earthquake more than 3000 animals were killed, Steve Glassey, Associate Director of the university’s Centre for Risk Resilience and Renewal, says.

``Many of the best practices in companion animal emergency management stem from Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States of America. In its wake, it left $US110 billion in damage and 1836 people dead making it the third deadliest disaster in US history,’’ Glassey told the Australia and New Zealand disaster management conference in Queensland.

As a former chair of New Zealand’s National Welfare Coordination Group, Glassey recently led a project based on research he previously carried out which highlighted the need for bona fide disability assist dogs to be easily identified in an emergency.

``This disaster also highlighted the importance of companion animal emergency management with over 50,000 pets being left behind during the evacuation of New Orleans and 80 to 90 percent of these pets perishing.

``The most compelling fact for emergency managers to learn from Katrina was that about 44 percent of the people who did not evacuate for Hurricane Katrina stayed, at least in part, because they did not want to leave their pets behind.

``The dog exemplifies how research and taking an evidence based approach to companion animal emergency management can save the lives of people, through protecting pets and service dogs.

``With most New Zealanders owning pets, it is no wonder we find the issue of pets in disasters highly emotive and topical. The human-animal connection is extremely powerful in an emergency management context, both in creating opportunities to enhance public safety, but it is also a major risk if pets are not included in emergency management arrangements.

``Though there may be a legal power to evacuate people without their pets, from an evidence based approach to emergency management, let alone a moral obligation – pets need to be evacuated along with their other family members.

``We can learn the lessons the easy way or the hard way from Hurricane Katrina but simply put, saving pets equals saving people. There is academic consensus that pet owners are more likely to refuse to evacuate if they are required to leave their pets, placing them and public safety personnel at risk. In a survey of New Zealand pet owners, 58 percent of respondents indicated they would likely return to rescue their pets if left behind, despite advice from public safety officials.

``By forcing pet owners to leave their pets in a disaster, pet owners are more likely to be psychologically impacted. So we are actually harming our communities by not evacuating pets and putting their safety, along with the safety of our front line personnel at risk,’’ Glassey says.

Glassey is working with researchers from the Australian Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre on managing animals in disasters.


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