Pets Are Like Family, So Why Do They Get Left Behind During Disasters?

Illustration: Chelsea Beck (G/O Media)
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Michelle Nestle never really understood the meaning of a flash flood until water rushed into her house in the middle of the night. It was the summer of 2017, and Hurricane Harvey was dumping a record breaking amount of rain over Houston and the surrounding areas like Hitchcock, where Nestle and her family lived. The family did what they could to grab supplies, but the biggest concern was their pets. While her cat was sleeping blissfully unaware on a dresser, her three dogs were panicking and pacing up and down. It wasn’t clear how they would all get out alive.

Although the two larger dogs might make it through the waters, Nestle didn’t have her cat carriers on hand after loaning them to a friend. Serendipitously, the family’s deep freezer floated into the house as the water rose, and she quickly turned it into an improvised vessel for the tiny animals.

“By the time we stepped into the street, the water was up to our chest,” she said.

Nestle’s predicament wasn’t unusual. Hurricane Harvey dumped so much water so quickly that tales like this played out across the Lone Star state. And while her animals all made it out, pets often fare poorly during natural disasters. The evolving nature of the threat and a lack of concrete evacuation plans means that plenty of animals meet an untimely demise or face a distressing future, separated from their owners.

Now, two researchers–Sarah DeYoung, an assistant professor at the Institute for Disaster Management of the University of Georgia, and Ashley Farmer an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State University–are hoping to change that. They run the Pets & Evacuation Research Project, a National Science Foundation-funded endeavor that seeks, through on-site interviews and social media responses, to investigate why animal evacuation does or doesn’t work during disasters. Ultimately, they hope to amass enough data to develop evacuation frameworks that can be given to emergency responders and policymakers to ensure more animals make it out of these situations alive.

DeYoung and Farmer worked together at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center back in 2014. Through phone surveys for a hurricane evacuation project, they realized that people frequently brought up their pets when talking about disasters in much the same way they discussed other family members. The two used this work as a springboard for a more detailed investigation of how pets are dealt with during disasters.

In the past few years, the pair have been collecting data from multiple disasters that struck various parts of the US, including hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Florence, the recent spate of wildfires in California and the 2018 eruption of Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano. They are currently turning descriptive evidence into something more number-based, so that they can create models that can be statistically tested and verified. It’s early days, but it’s clear that no two disasters and no two animals are alike, meaning that a universal evacuation plan for pets isn’t really in the cards.

The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards or PETS Act, passed by Congress in 2006 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was designed to provide assistance to pets during disasters. It required states to make sure pets were factored into evacuation plans, but as DeYoung explained, how this happens is often open to interpretation.

Ultimately, little mandatory action is required and many places lack effective evacuation plan for animals. Communication also remains deeply problematic. For instance, people frequently suspect that hotels must take on pets during disasters because of the PETS Act, but that’s not the case. Evacuation shelters aren’t always pet-friendly either, and if information about pet-friendly shelters isn’t properly disseminated, residents may refuse to abide by mandatory evacuation orders. This endangers not just the pet owners’ lives, but those of the emergency responders too.

DeYoung and Farmer’s work mainly focuses on cats and dogs, but they’re aware that, and gather data on, a myriad of animals that get caught up in disasters. Like Jennifer Moss’s bearded dragon and pygmy Brazilian short-tailed possum, which faced Harvey’s floodwaters alongside with the family’s three dogs and their human owners.

The morning after Moss’s home in League City, Texas began flooding, colleagues, friends and neighbors turned up on jet ski-pulled boats and canoes. The dogs were safely evacuated, but one was so panicked that she came close to capsizing the boat. The possum and bearded dragon couldn’t be evacuated at the time, so Moss’s husband stayed behind to protect them.

Other types of disasters present different challenges. Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist based in California, has been involved in the evacuation a wide range of animals during multiple recent wildfires. At present, she said, the fate of many animals rest in the hands of volunteers, citing the 2016 Sand Fire in Los Angeles as a particularly tumultuous example.

At one point, flames were heading toward two different exotic animal rescue facilities. One of them had no animal evacuation plan in place, so it put out a call on Facebook, asking for volunteers to help evacuate lions, tigers, wild horses and more. Phoenix helped out, describing the surreal shrieks of all the animals as the fire rushed toward them.

“It was totally crazy,” she said. “It wasn’t just a matter of not having proper procedures in place for what to do, but also not having places for the animals to go.”

Fortunately, being near Hollywood, exotic animal trainers working on movies managed to find space for much of the menagerie, and none of these animals died. By the time the Woolsey and Hill fires ripped through Malibu and surrounding areas in late-2018, evacuation plans had improved and animal-specific groups–like the Southern California Equine Emergency Evacuation, of which Phoenix is a member–managed to quickly evacuate and shelter all kinds of horses.

“That was straight up craziness, but it was organized craziness this time,” she explained.

Clearly, the evacuation of animals is a complex and multidimensional problem. Still, DeYoung and Farmer have managed to uncover certain pervasive trends.

For one, the more animals a person owns, the more likely some are going to be left behind. This turns out to be especially true of cats, which often hide during fast-onset disasters like wildfires. Faced with a difficult choice between a cat and a dog, owners will sometimes leave cats behind, as they are seen as more able to manage on their own until salvation arrives. Often, these animals die or are never re-united with their owners.

Future pet evacuation frameworks will need to address the fact that disasters affect different animals differently. DeYoung and Farmer are currently working on two such frameworks: one for emergency managers and another for the evacuees themselves. “Those groups have different sets of issues in terms of preparedness, coordination and recovery,” DeYoung explained.

But some basic tips for people and pets caught up in disasters are already available. The researchers advise people to always have a recent photograph of their pet to help ID them. Keeping a pet microchipped with the latest contact information, having multiple contingency plans for where they can be kept, and knowing who are capable of evacuating and temporarily caring for them, all help too.

“If people knew that they had a place to go that would accept their animals and not charge exorbitant pet fees,” said Moss, “there would possibly be less pets left behind.”

People will always try to head back into dangerous areas to retrieve pets. This needs to be acknowledged by emergency managers, and the researchers suggests that a protective escort, after a certain amount of time has passed, might be a good call.

Phoenix expressed excitement over the project. She suspects that any future pet evacuation framework will have built-in flexibility, given that no two disasters or animals are alike. She also emphasized the need to have a proper chain of command, so that there is always an experienced person in charge that can make the tough decisions. If you’re rescuing an animal but it refuses to come along, and other pets–and people–could be prioritized instead, someone has to make that call.

While disasters don’t always end in tragedy for pets and their owners, the stress of the event can linger. Moss’ husband, bearded dragon and possum were all eventually rescued, but the family and their animals had to huddle up in an RV together during the nine months it took them to fix up their house—all except the bearded dragon, whose habitat proved too big to fit and which had to stay with a friend.

Nestle’s pets and family were also successfully evacuated. But soon afterwards, she found herself getting panicked when she drove through water or even when it rained. Around the same time, two of her dogs began attacking each other, which turned into a habit. “They’re affected the same way we are,” she said. “They’re having to adapt to it as well.”

Humans and their pets share deep bonds, and they cope with disasters in surprisingly similar ways. Despite this, those rescuing pets and those evacuating people are often disconnected. The question, in Farmer’s mind, is “how do we bridge these gaps?” After all, if authorities make sure our pets are saved, they might wind up saving more human lives, too.