People are putting themselves at risk to rescue pets in disaster zones.
New Zealand research reveals the impact of disaster planning and evacuation on pets and their owners and makes recommendations for law reform.
Publishing in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Otago researchers surveyed households affected by a major flood in the town of Edgecumbe (population: 1638) located in New Zealand’s North Island in 2017.
Researchers surveyed 212 households, representing more than a third (35.5%) of all households in the town. They asked about the impact of the flood and the emergency response on pet owners and their behaviour during the emergency.
The timing of the paper is significant given flooding accounts for more than 70% of declared emergencies in New Zealand, and the country’s parliament is set to pass new emergency management laws.
During the 2017 Edgecumbe event, floodwaters reached up to 2 metres in some areas.
According to the paper, this led to the largest pet rescue operation at the time in New Zealand, with more than 1000 animals rescued in the days following the event.
Lead author of the study, Steve Glassey has a background in fire and rescue as well extensive experience volunteering and working for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Glassey says one of the things that stood out in people’s responses was how much they were affected by leaving pets behind, or losing pets in the disaster.
Around 76% of the surveyed households had pets at the time of the floods. Dogs, cats and chickens were the most common types.
No human lives were lost during the disaster, but in their responses many residents describe ongoing nightmares about leaving animals behind.
An emergency services worker quoted in the paper says: “It was one of the worst days of my life and I felt for the animals that we were unable to save, I still have bad dreams a year on, but as they all keep saying no human life was taken.”
Nearly one in five participants had pets die during the flood.
“What’s the point of evacuating people if one of the most important things in their life perishes?” Glassey asks.
The results show the primary reason people attempted unlawful re-entry of the flood zone was to care for or rescue their animals. It’s why emergency planning should include animals, Glassey says.
“What emergency plans should reflect is the reality of what humans will actually do in a disaster,” he says.
Most participants did not receive instructions relating to pets while evacuating. However, households with an emergency plan that included pets were more likely to evacuate their animals (94%) compared to those without (50%).
“My aunt and cousin snuck past the cordons while the evacuations were taking place and walked to my house to get my pup and drove out,” says one survey respondent quoted in the study.
According to the paper, “both residents and emergency response personnel found it difficult to cope with the challenges of prioritising human rescue over animals when it was required. Those who had to leave their pets behind found this distressing and felt that their pets should have been given a higher priority.”
The study’s findings highlight the importance of including pets and animals in emergency planning, consistent with experiences in other countries.
For example, during Hurricane Katrina in the US, 44% of people who chose to stay behind did so partly because they were unable to bring their pets. Within a year of the disaster, the US passed laws to ensure animals were included in emergency rescue plans and operations.
Glassey hopes the paper and its recommendations for animal-inclusive disaster response will inform changes to emergency management legislation in New Zealand.
“Saving animals saves human lives,” he says.
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