Sixty-three percent of Americans have a feline friend, canine companion or other type of pet, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. And when disaster strikes, most pet owners are reluctant to leave those pets behind. That’s where partnerships with local animal welfare groups can help, as they did during the 2011 Joplin, Mo., tornado, the Iowa and Memphis, Tenn., floods and other natural disasters nationally.
Through partnerships with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), American Red Cross and the Humane Society of the United States, Joplin, Iowa and Memphis received the help they needed to implement disaster preparedness and response plans that include animals.
Eye on Joplin
On May 22, when the catastrophic tornado struck Joplin, animal control officers were overwhelmed, according to Martin White, an animal control officer for the city. The main objective that night was to set up a co-located animal shelter close to pet owners.
“Experience has shown us through disasters that people will not go to a shelter where they couldn’t take their animals,” he said. “So we went in with the Red Cross to set up these little animal shelters adjacent to these human shelters.”
In addition, White said the tornado was an “eye-opening” experience — one fraught with doubt. “I was very uncertain what our role would be — and how we would operate and [if we] could we operate,” he said of the destruction and response efforts.
But when natural disasters like this $2.8 billion tornado occur, it is a quandary for all parties involved, since resources must be obtained and lives — both humans and animals — are at stake. The Humane Society of Missouri handled the search and rescue, and the ASPCA did the shelter operations. But Martin said many animals were not rescued because it was unsafe for rescue workers to go into the debris and rubble.
The ASPCA is a nonprofit that “provides local and national leadership in three key areas: caring for pet parents and pets, providing positive outcomes for at-risk animals and serving victims of animal cruelty.”
“The Joplin operation was among the most challenging operations because it was so personal to me,” said Tim Rickey, senior director of the ASPCA Field Investigations and Response Team. “It was my hometown; many of my friends and family had been affected by the disaster, so that was part of it.”
Rickey, an animal recovery veteran, has led efforts after major disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Iowa floods and multiple incidents in Missouri. He was on the ground for 45 days and found that it was overwhelming: Pet owners and community members brought in more than 1,300 animals.
Further compounding the problem was handling the truckloads of donated supplies, including crates, food and leashes, without a donation management system. “It was honestly a wonderful problem to have,” said Rickey, “but it was a huge challenge for a few days and required us to bring in additional staff and secure an additional warehouse.”
Although that was a good problem, White said securing resources and funding through state, local and federal governments for some items was difficult. After the tornado, White said government’s red tape made it hard to get air conditioning units to cool down warehouses where animals were being sheltered, and it was difficult getting a site for the emergency shelter supplies.