If you’re like me, when you hear the word “disaster”, you probably think in terms of Disasters with a capital “D”: once-in-a-lifetime events causing catastrophic damage and leaving lasting impacts on individuals and communities. While many times we think in terms of natural disasters, like floods, wildfires, or hurricanes, unfortunately, Disasters come in many other forms– infectious disease, transportation or chemical accidents, and even terrorism. When Disaster strikes, sometimes we have warning, and those in its likely path have time to prepare. But just as often, the Disaster is unexpected, sudden, or even insidious, its effects so subtle at first that no one pays much attention until it is too late.
When Hurricane Katrina demolished the city of New Orleans in 2005, officials knew it was coming, though they had no way to predict the catastrophic failure of the city’s levee system that was to come. Human evacuation orders were issued—but no plan was in place for the residents’ animals. This forced residents to make a horrible choice; flee the storm and leave their animals behind, or stay, threatening not only their own lives but those of first responders. One source claims that some 44% of at-risk New Orleans residents did not evacuate because they wouldn’t abandon their pets. Ultimately, nearly 2,000 people and as many as 150,000 non-human animals perished.
Two years later, a Harvard School of Public Health survey of residents living in high-risk hurricane areas found that more than 25% of respondents would not obey evacuation orders if they could not bring their pets with them. Later, an article in the September 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health detailed the significant physical and mental health risks associated with failing to plan for animals in disaster.
Clearly, making a plan to save animal lives in a Disaster is, in fact, a plan to save human lives.
As a direct result of public outcry in Katrina’s aftermath, in 2006, Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which requires local and state governments to accommodate pets and service animals in their emergency plans. Although the PETS Act was a huge step forward, it remains an unfunded mandate, meaning it is up to municipalities and states to figure out how to make it happen, financially. Further, the PETS Act specifically excludes livestock species and horses, even if said animals are essentially family pets.
Clearly, the PETS Act is a step in the right direction, but for livestock and horse owners, it is not enough. Frankly, state and federal governments should be much more concerned. Not only is there a personal impact when livestock is affected by a Disaster, but there is also an economic one. For a recent example, after Hurricane Ian slammed into the Ft. Meyers, Florida area in September 2022, researchers at the University of Florida estimated a loss of “$220 million worth of animals and animal products.” In the Florida Bar Journal’s March/April 2023 edition, author Mallory Lizana argues for stronger protections for all species:
“Domestic animals depend on us for shelter, food, and protection, especially during times of disaster. Not only are horses and cattle worth saving as sentient beings, but they also play critical roles for Florida’s economy. Furthermore, household pets are considered and treated more like members of the family with every growing year. These animals are worth protecting, not only for their own sake, but for ours as well.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to represent the New Hampshire Horse Council at a free training on the subject of preparedness for animals in disasters, sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This particular training was intended to “…introduce participants to the resources available during emergencies that will assist in the management of animals, to identify best practices for emergency response that involves animals, and to assist participants in understanding how animals are included in a disaster plan.” In attendance were firefighters, emergency medical technicians/paramedics, community planners, veterinarians (including two assistant state veterinarians), dairy promoters, county animal response team (CART) members, and concerned private citizens. Attendees represented agencies and organizations spanning at least three states.
Perhaps one of my biggest takeaways from the training is that when it comes to animal emergencies, it isn’t only Disasters that need to be planned for. Smaller scale incidents— like loose livestock in a roadway, a horse stuck in a bridge, or a collapsed barn with live animals trapped inside—can still require a coordinated local response from public servants who may lack animal experience, local residents, and animal specialists. This means community members and organizations with animal expertise, tools and/or other resources must both be included in response planning and be prepared to assist as needed.
Further, the impact of both natural and man-made disasters can be short or long-term. By their very nature, some disasters—like drought, or a disease outbreak—may require long-term strategies to mitigate the effects and move toward recovery.
Although the focus of this FEMA training was oriented toward “big picture” animals-in-disaster planning, it certainly got me thinking about more practical steps that we as animal owners and caretakers should take to be as prepared as possible if a “worst-case scenario” occurs. With the caveat that it is impossible to predict every emergency situation, by looking at historical events that have occurred in your area and applying a little common sense, you can make an educated guess as to the most likely types of incidents to expect. When it comes to increasing the chances of your animals surviving a Disaster, for sure the best defense is a good offense.
The following is my own personal brainstorm of actions animal owners can take to prepare for a Disaster (or disaster), ranging from everyday good management practices to broader-scale activities. Some ideas relate just to horses, but others include our small animal companions, too. Not all of these steps will apply to every situation; think about your own unique circumstances and adjust accordingly!
General Good Management
Practice good hygiene—isolate new horses and those that travel from the home herd. Do not share equipment or touch unknown horses. Ask guests to come to your facility in clean clothes and wash their hands before interacting with your animals.
Stay alert to animal-related health incidents in your area, and adjust your management plan accordingly.
Microchip all animals, and keep chip info up to date.
Maintain a stocked animal first aid kit(s). Ideally, have two: one to live in your barn, and one to live in your trailer.
Stock at least two weeks’ worth of animal feed and medications at any given time.
Ensure all animals are up-to-date on vaccinations and other routine tests, such as Coggins. Store relevant health paperwork in your tow vehicle, on your phone, and in at least one other location.
Maintain up-to-date identification photos of all animals (to prove ownership).
Ensure all animals have well-fitted handling equipment readily available (halters, leads, harnesses, leashes).
Keep aisles clear, and doors and gates operational (it should not be a struggle to get in and out quickly).
Routinely inspect and repair all fencing, particularly after strong weather.
If You Need to Shelter in Place
Figure out a system to store extra water—at least 5 gallons per animal—before you need it in an emergency. Have a plan for water access if power is off for an extended period, or if local water sources are contaminated.
Consider installing a generator sufficient to meet basic facility needs.
Purchase livestock marking crayons to mark horses with your phone number. Sharpies can also work in a pinch. Consider your horses’ coat colors in terms of which form of identification will show up best. Both of these methods of marking are commonly used in endurance riding; they are non-toxic and water-resistant.
Label halters with heavy-duty tape and include contact info.
Do not overstock your facility. Ensure adequate, species-appropriate shelter for all animals in your care.
If You Need to Evacuate
In this case, time may be of the essence—share your plan with staff, family members, and neighbors that may be involved in executing it, and consider doing a “practice run” annually or biannually.
Own enough carriers to safely accommodate all your small animals.
Create an evacuation plan—where will you go with horses? Small animals? Try to plan more than one option. Consider how various routes in your area could be impacted in times of strong weather or mass evacuation.
Keep trucks/trailers accessible (shoveled out in winter), in good repair, and fueled up.
If you do not have enough trailers to evacuate all animals on site, or you do not have enough time to remove them, what will you do for those left behind? Consider: marking animals, leaving them inside vs. outside, water sources, etc. In advance, decide which animals are a priority to evacuate, and which will stay.
Be an Active Citizen
Become familiar with your community’s emergency response plan. Advocate that the needs of domestic animals, including livestock and horses, be included in this plan.
Study the types of natural or man-made disasters that might affect your area. Evaluate your property, or the facility where your horses are stabled, to assess how these types of incidents might impact these areas specifically, and work to mitigate these impacts in advance. Don’t forget to consider the impacts on access roads as well.
Support local and regional organizations specifically tasked with helping animals in disaster, such as state horse councils, the SPCA, Community Animal Response Teams (CART), and safety net organizations, whether as a volunteer or through donations.
Credit for cover image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8113246@N02/26246210340, shared through Creative Commons license.