Animals in Disasters – Why our relationships to animals matter

What happens with our animals when disaster strikes? Associate Professor Thompson explains why disasters planning and preparedness are vital for animal owners.

People do all sorts of things to accommodate animals in their lives on a daily basis – waking up early to make sure they are exercised before work, only taking vacations where there is pet-friendly accommodation, declining spontaneous social invitations to make sure pets are fed ‘on time’. But what happens when disaster strikes and our relationships with our animals are really put to the test?

We might instinctually feel that we would – as always – do all we could to accommodate our pets. So why don’t all pet owners have a well thought out and rehearsed plan of action for facing an emergency or disaster?

If a disaster struck – what would you do?

Imagine a friend calls you to say your house is in the path of a major bushfire. What would you do? What would you take? Would you take your pets? Are they easy to locate? Do they transport easily? How long would it take to load them? Where would you take them? Now imagine receiving this call whilst you are at home, and again if you are at work? What if it is at night-time? What if it is daytime but the smoke is so thick you can’t see more than a metre in front of you? Now imagine you share your house with an elderly parent, small child or mobility impaired visitor. Would your plan remain the same? Would you still take your pet?

In Australia, where major bushfire events occur every year, pet owners have been known to put their lives at serious risk to save their pets, large animals and livestock – even wildlife or other animals that are not their own. Attempts to rescue animals are not always successful; sometimes leading to the devastating loss of both animal and human lives.

Some animals seem to be left behind to perish, but it’s hard to know if they were abandoned, or if their owners and carers were prevented from evacuating with them or returning to collect them. Would their deaths be any less lamentable if people had died trying to save them?1 Whilst it is easy to say you love your animal so much you would risk your life to save them no matter what, it’s impossible to know what you (or anyone else) would do in the face of immediate danger – and what your options might even be, especially when you are torn between lots of things that you love and more than one thing you would risk your life for.

Natural disasters don’t discriminate between the lives they take

In developing countries, saving an animal might be done at the cost of losing a family member, but the loss of that animal might mean the inability to feed any survivors. It’s far from ideal, but it is a reality. What is clear is that natural disasters don’t discriminate between the lives they take and bushfires don’t make plans. People, however, can. This is precisely why planning and preparedness are so important. It is too late to decide what to do when you are faced with a disaster. The same goes for animal owners and carers.

Rather than agree with previous research characterising pet ownership as a risk factor for successful emergency evacuation or the survival of a natural disaster2,3 it is important to determine how animal owners and carers might be encouraged to gain higher levels of planning and preparedness.

In fact, there are four main ways in which a desire to save pets and animals in our care could motivate natural disaster planning and preparedness - I will describe these in my next blog ‘Four ways in which we can make animal ownership a protective factor for natural disaster survival’.

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On Research gate, through our Facebook project page or on twitter @DrKirrilly.

Further reading

[1] Every D, Due C, Thompson K, Ryan G. “I know it sounds silly, but my pets mean the world to me”: Conflicting perspectives on animal rescues in natural disasters. Society and Animals 2016 online first

[2] Heath SE, Kass PH, Beck AM, Glickman LT. Human and Pet-related Risk Factors for Household Evacuation Failure During a Natural Disaster. American Journal of Epidemiology 2001;153: 659-665

[3] Heath SE, Voeks SK, Glickman LT. Epidemiologic features of pet evacuation failure in a rapid-onset disaster. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2001;218:1898-1904.


* This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog belong solely to the blog owner and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of World Animal Protection.