A poll released recently by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that 35 percent of dog and cat owners have no plan for dealing with their pets during a disaster that forces them to evacuate. Forty-two percent of dog or cat owners polled in the survey said they would not evacuate without their pets, 39 percent said they would leave them behind and 19 percent said they didn't know what they would do.
The finding underscores something emergency management officials learned during Hurricane Katrina six years ago in New Orleans: Some pet owners won't evacuate in an emergency if it means leaving their animals behind, while others may be forced to abandon pets.
With hurricane season running through November, the ASPCA is urging pet owners to identify a place in advance where they could bring their animals if they had to evacuate in an emergency. The organization also advocates microchipping pets as the best way to make sure owners can be tracked down if their animals get lost.
New Yorkers hunkering down for Irene recently were lucky: The city permitted evacuees to bring pets with them to designated shelters. And the transit system, which normally only allows service dogs or pets in carriers to ride buses and trains, allowed leashed dogs onboard as a way of encouraging reluctant pet owners in flood zones to leave.
As a result, said Tim Rickey, the ASPCA's senior director of field investigations and response team, several hundred pets were brought to New York's shelters, which had crates and animal care teams to accommodate them.
In Joplin, Mo., after the tornado in May killed 160 people, the ASPCA took 1,300 lost or abandoned dogs and cats into an emergency animal shelter. Fewer than 5 percent of those animals were microchipped, said Rickey.
Only 500 of the Joplin pets were reunited with their owners. The rest were placed with new owners in a massive adopt-a-thon that drew 5,700 people from 24 states.
Rickey, who has led pet recovery efforts for hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, and floods, ice storms and wildfires, said animals at the Joplin shelter included those that were rescued, animals found as strays and pets dropped off by owners who couldn't keep them because they'd lost their homes. Some pets were so scared they had to be trapped by Rickey's crews.
Rickey has three horses, four goats, 17 chickens, four dogs, two cats, a wife and two daughters at home in St. Clair, Mo., and even though it requires a horse trailer, they have an evacuation plan that includes the whole bunch.
He urges pet owners to "always evacuate with your pets. If it's not safe for you to stay, it's probably not safe for your pet." And you never know if you will be gone for two hours or two weeks, he added.
Of course, while hurricanes are usually forecast in advance, tornados leave little time for people to take shelter — with or without their pets. In Joplin, when the sirens went off, people were lucky if they had time to grab family members and pets and huddle in a closet.
Virginia Anderson, 95, lost everything in the tornado but a couple of cabinets full of glass collectibles that were somehow protected by a wall that didn't blow away with the rest of her house. But she couldn't find the two things that meant the most to her — her cats, Pretty Kitty, 12, and Lucky, 5.
She moved in with friend and former daughter-in-law, Pauletta Daniels, on the other side of town. Three days later, Pretty Kitty turned up fine in what was left of a closet at Anderson's home. And two weeks later, Daniels found Lucky at the ASPCA shelter. Like every other pet sent home or adopted from the shelter, he got a microchip before leaving.