Animal safety in tumultuous times

This week in North Philly Notes, Sarah DeYoung and Ashley Farmer, authors of All Creatures Safe and Sound, write about animal issues in disasters.

When the Surfside Condo collapsed in Miami, Florida last month, people and animals perished. For days and weeks, some residents anxiously awaited news about their relatives, loved ones, and pets. National news fixated on the fate of the people and their companion animals. In one instance, an animal advocate requested an emergency petition to halt the demolition of the building because of possible remaining pets. Her request was denied, and responders reported that no pets were found when they searched the structure that remained.

Other news stories centered on joyful stories of reunification—such as the one of Binx the cat who lived on the ninth floor of the condo. Binx was found alive by a volunteer and reunited with his family. Meanwhile, throughout all the stories, groups circulated information and pleas for help on social media. Sometimes the social media information about animals in the condo collapse conflicted with official information from responders and emergency managers. All these issues—conflicting information, petitions, search efforts, and emotional appeals are common for animal issues in disasters.

In data from our recent book All Creatures Safe and Sound, we found that many disasters are wrought with some degree of tension between animal welfare organizations and emergency or government response agencies. While some of these tensions are amplified by social media, misinformation, or other aspects of the overall communication in the crisis event—there are also actual differences in the ways animal welfare organizations and emergency management address animal issues. After the devastating 2018 Camp Fire in California, residents and organizations lamented over the confusing information, timeline, and protocols for retrieving animals that were stranded behind the fire line. Many animals survived the fire, and ad hoc volunteers and others worked to make sure that the animals received food and water during the weeks-long prohibitory orders barring residents from re-entering. People were still waiting to reunite with their companion animals weeks after the fire and the search for information was confusing and cumbersome. Many residents had to visit multiple websites or physical locations to gather information about lost pets—all while dealing with displacement, trauma, and seeking disaster assistance.

Similarly, in the Hawaii lava flows of 2018 that prompted the evacuation of approximately 2,000 households, many people felt that the agencies in charge of response did not display empathy or render appropriate levels of assistance for animal welfare and concerns about animals. Of course, safety is paramount. People could be injured or worse if they attempt to retrieve their animals in an active lava flow area—or in the case of the Surfside collapse, a structurally unsound building. However, to assuage the concerns of residents, animal welfare organizations, and others, drone footage, information about location of the physical sweeps, and other details should be made available in one central location. Transparency and communication will build trust with community members and between agencies.

As disasters are becoming more frequent, we urge agencies responding to and managing disasters to view companion animal well-being as linked with human well-being. This means that the goals of keeping people and their pets safe are not competing interests, despite the complexities that may arise in crisis scenarios. We also argue that risk communication can harness the power of attachment that people have with animals to bolster overall community well-being. A few years ago, a meme circulated on social media that read, “Don’t drink and drive, your dog won’t understand why you never came home.” The same approach might be effective for other public health outreach messages. For example, the possibility of a pet losing their human to COVID might very well just be enough cause some hesitant individuals to decide to get the COVID vaccine.

As for the responders, survivors, animals, and others involved in the Surfside Condo collapse, our research also indicates that there will be lasting trauma from this event. People who engaged in body recovery should be screened for PTSD—and this may include volunteers who were also focused on animal rescue. People who lived in the condo who were unable to evacuate with their animals may experience lasting feelings of remorse, guilt, or other emotions. In past disasters, we found this to be a common theme for other disaster survivors who were unable to locate their pet after a fire or flood. While it’s impossible to moderate all news stories and social media posts about the animal angles in this and other events—it is important to consider the nuance that people may have unintentionally left their pets behind because the disaster happened so quickly. Once again, this acknowledgement can reduce shaming or blaming after the event.

We hope these harm reduction approaches through using social and behavioral science will spark new framings, conversations, and possibly even new policies regarding pets in disasters.


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