NORMAL — Imagine your home has been ravaged by a flood, hurricane or other disaster. Imagine you are separated from loved ones, living in a strange place, wrenched from your routines and uncertain about your future.
That scenario could apply to any number of people displaced by disasters. But it also could apply to their pets.
“They've been through the same disaster that people have been through,” said Lyn Hruska, CEO of the Red Cross Central and Southern Illinois Region. “They're distressed, possibly ill.”
Ashley Farmer, assistant professor of criminal justice sciences at Illinois State University, is working with another researcher to determine the best practices for keeping pets safe in such situations.
Farmer started looking into disaster response issues while she was a doctoral student at the University of Delaware and working at its Disaster Research Center.
When people who had to evacuate because of disasters were asked whether they had any other family members to take care of, Farmer said, “people would bring up their pets.”
She and principal researcher Sarah DeYoung are going to be in North Carolina Oct. 12 through Oct. 15 interviewing people affected by Hurricane Florence.
Farmer and DeYoung, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia's Institute of Disaster Management, have already interviewed people impacted by California wildfires and Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
They are using a $94,085 National Science Foundation grant to find ways to ensure successful evacuation of companion animals and their owners. They also are examining social vulnerability, access to resources and information gathering during natural disasters.
Their research involves not only evacuees but also managers, shelters and nonprofit organizations.
The goal is to get their advice about what has worked and what hasn't and to get that information to those who need it, explained Farmer.
“The more we talk about it, the more solutions we can come up with together,” said Farmer.
Many people interviewed say, “If my pets can't go, then I won't go” when faced with an order to evacuate, said Farmer, one reason why planning is needed.
In general, Red Cross shelters do not accept pets for health and safety reasons and other considerations. But when Hruska was deployed to Houston after Hurricane Harvey last year, her assignment was to set up a shelter for pets adjacent to a city shelter that had been accepting both people and their pets.
Hruska said when she first arrived at the city shelter, she saw an aggressive dog tied to a cot, dogs chasing a bunny and a variety of other animals in situations that were stressful and risky for both humans and animals.
“It wasn't terribly popular to separate people from their pets,” said Hruska.
But the owners remained responsible for their pets' care with assistance and their stress went down as they saw their pets were being treated well, according to Hruska.
Veterinarians were on hand to provide vaccinations to those who needed them, she said.
That's one of the “best practices” noted in research by Farmer. Even evacuation shelters that permit pets generally require vaccination records — something that might get left behind in a hasty evacuation. So, Farmer said, some shelters have vets available to give necessary vaccinations.
That's one reason why both Farmer and Hruska recommend including veterinary records in an emergency evacuation kit. Also include food, a favorite chew toy, any needed medications and a leash. Be sure your pet has a collar and/or a microchip with identification and make sure your contact information is up to date.
The Midwest might not have hurricanes and wildfires leading to evacuations, but tornadoes, floods or fires can lead to hasty evacuations, warned Hruska.
“Planning is really important,” said Farmer.
Outsiders will often question why someone didn't evacuate in advance of a disaster or why they left their pets behind, but Farmer said several factors can be involved.
A waitress they interviewed in Texas had to work until it was too late to evacuate.
“She walked through waist-deep water to go back and get her dog,” said Farmer.
A person they interviewed in California awoke to a wildfire. “She had literally seconds to decide” and only had time to grab her dog but not her cat, said Farmer. “She felt guilty about that.”