The management of animals is an important part of any field response to disasters. Whether it is the management of displaced, injured, or ill animals after a natural disaster or the care of search and rescue animals as part of the response team, animal care remains an integral piece of the disaster-preparedness and response system. The current geopolitical climate has forced the United States to explore contingency plans for future environmental disasters. Although most of the research along these lines is focused on human safety, the animal and agricultural aspects of disaster management also need to be explored. Because natural disasters are a more-frequent risk to animal populations than possible biological or terrorist threats are, the protection of these resources demands proper consideration.
U.S. agriculture, a $100 billion business, is an important nutritional source, and it helps sustain the country’s economic growth and military readiness. However, concentrating animals into larger facilities to provide abundant food sources increases agricultural risk, especially in the event of a biological disaster or terrorist threat. In addition, the large numbers of companion animals in urban areas should be considered during an evacuation, because most disaster shelter facilities do not accept animals. Overall, a large number of animals—both livestock and pets—are likely to need care during a disaster.
Analysis of past disasters highlights some mistakes, but lessons may be learned from them. Large-scale natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Andrew and Floyd in 1999, may be viewed as test scenarios from which future contingencies can be developed. Evaluating the mobilization, transportation, and housing of displaced companion animals and livestock helps prepare pet owners and animal producers for future events. Not all contingency factors can be addressed in every disaster plan, and, for this reason, a flexible, well-thought-out plan is necessary.
Animals, their behavior patterns, and their habitats can also be affected by natural disaster. The Lushan Earthquake that occurred in Southern China in 2013 dramatically disrupted the giant panda natural habitat, resulting in pandas being killed, as well as behavioral changes in surviving animals. Such disruptions can cause decreases in populations by both direct (death of animals) and indirect (disruptions of reproductive behaviors and raising of young) ways.
According to the National Academies Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources’ report, “Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism,” not only is America vulnerable to terrorist attacks against agriculture, but insufficient plans are in place to defend against such attacks. The crippling effects of the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic of 2001 illustrate the local economic disruption and global effects such events entail. Even though biological attacks are not likely to cause widespread famine, they could have a direct effect on the national economy, public health, and the public’s confidence in the food system. Plans need to be drafted now to provide a framework in which a safe, continuous supply of food can be guaranteed, epidemic disease outbreaks can be prevented, and proper care for injured animals can be ensured.
As some of history’s most recent disasters show, animal health care, veterinary infection control, control of stray animals, and the revival of veterinary infrastructures are the primary areas that need to be addressed in effective implemental models developed for the future.
On August 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew ripped through Southern Florida, leaving thousands of animals injured, abandoned, or dead. Relief efforts were hampered because organizations and volunteer groups lacked a central command structure. These groups, though well intentioned, were unable to coordinate the necessary supplies and medical resources in a cohesive effort to help those areas most devastated by the hurricane.
On September 16, 1999, Hurricane Floyd devastated North Carolina, affecting poultry, pork, and cattle production, as well as horses, cats, dogs, and other pets. North Carolina residents, because of the unsubstantiated, predicted dangers in previous media-hyped disasters, ignored calls for evacuation. The lack of pet-friendly evacuation shelters, in addition to the lack of public preparedness, contributed to evacuation failures. Such failures endanger not only animals but their human owners as well. North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine was able to reestablish a veterinary infrastructure, contributing to the success of the disaster-management operation. With its large number of trained personnel, resources, and medical supplies, the college was able to immediately take charge of animal care and control issues and organize volunteers. In addition to a large number of volunteers, enormous amounts of food and medical supplies were donated, and transportation was made available to help agencies contend with the disaster.
During the Hurricane Floyd disaster, medical care for animals was administered through a three-tier system. Tier 1 consisted primarily of vaccinations for cats. Tier 2 included heartworm infection and other diagnostic testing. Tier 3 treatments included surgical and medical stabilization of injuries.
On April 25, 1994, a tornado struck West Lafayette, Indiana, destroying 67 homes and 60 mobile homes. The civic response to this incident is an example of a lack of evacuation procedures. It resulted in massive pet abandonment by individuals in an urban location. Pet abandonment is a consequence of unplanned or poorly executed evacuations. Human-animal bonds are strong, and, during a disaster, such bonds may influence peoples’ decisions to reenter a disaster area to retrieve a family pet. Such decisions may pose significant risks not only to individuals and families but also to emergency personnel, who may need to become involved in rescue efforts. Statistically, owners who regularly visit their veterinarians are less likely than those who do not to lose their pets during evacuations. Individuals with weak or poor human-animal bonds, who have low levels of disaster preparedness, or who own many animals are more prone to leave their animals behind during a disaster. Although pet abandonment is common during disasters, in a national survey, the proportion of animals abandoned during disasters was similar to the proportion of animals relinquished to 12 U.S. animal shelters. Pet evacuation failures generally result from low levels of pet care. Promoting responsible pet ownership that includes planning for emergencies, both natural and human-made, is a logical strategy to make owners more responsible for the evacuation of their pets.
On March 4, 1996, a train derailed near Weyauwega, Wisconsin, causing a fire to erupt in the train’s propane-filled cars. Local residents were asked to evacuate because of fears of a major explosion. Risk factors influencing the failure of owners to evacuate the area’s cats and dogs included a weak human-animal bond, logistical challenges, and generally low levels of disaster preparedness. During the Weyauwega disaster, 15% of all pet owners were at work and were unable to evacuate their pets. The most common reasons for failing to evacuate pets included owners thinking that they would not be gone long and that the evacuated areas were safe for pets. Outdoor cats were at higher risk of evacuation failure because they are more difficult to catch and transport. The higher incidence of the failure to evacuate cats compared with the failure to evacuate dogs likely reflects the greater ease with which dogs can be caught, restrained, and transported. It could also reflect the assumption that cats can “fend for themselves” if left outdoors. Interestingly, households with a high number of cats are more likely to leave a dog behind during evacuation procedures.
In November 1990, Western Washington experienced severe flooding. Dairy farmers who were surveyed were asked to evaluate the amount of equipment and personnel available to evacuate cattle, numbers of cattle evacuated, time required for evacuations, and destination and care of the animals. Financial loss from cattle deaths, illnesses, and halts in production was estimated at $2,786,629. Help for evacuation was readily available from family members, employees, and friends. Because of adequate notice, 5000 animals were evacuated in 20 hours. Evacuated cattle were housed at neighbors’ farms, at friends’ homes, on high ground, and at a vacant dairy. Not one cow went more than 2 days without fresh water or normal rations. Unfortunately, however, most of the farmers did not plan in advance on where to evacuate and how to care for their animals. In hindsight, farmers said they could have sheltered all of their animals if necessary. Overall, however, it was adequate time that led to the successful evacuation of a large number of animals to safe locations. On shorter notice, such a successful evacuation may not have been achievable.
Whereas evacuating a large number of cattle is very difficult, horses are easier to find and transport. Horse owners typically treat their animals differently than owners treat general livestock, and they usually have been able to move most, if not all, of their horses within 90 minutes. Data suggest that both the relatively small number of horses kept on a farm and the high emotional bond between owners and horses increase the chances of horses being evacuated in a timely manner. According to horse owners in Madison County, Kentucky, 100% of the horse population could be evacuated if a 12-hour evacuation notice were given.
The first priority in disaster relief is protecting and saving human lives. Animals have traditionally been viewed by emergency management officials as property, and therefore they receive much less attention than humans. Animal owners, however, consider animals either as an important source of income or as part of the family. Animal management during natural disasters is best accomplished with a plan created by state and local officials that provides a detailed framework in which to implement care during evacuations. The objectives of such a plan should be to bring some type of logistical structure to the chaos that occurs during and after a disaster. As part of such a plan, it is essential that veterinarians understand disaster preparedness so that they can integrate themselves more effectively into national, state, and local disaster-management systems.
The first step in an adequate disaster plan is denoting a clear chain of command that includes the delegation of responsibility. Without such a framework, independent groups may unintentionally direct resources away from needed areas. State veterinary agencies and practitioners will need to take responsibility for assuming leadership roles to organize animal professionals and lay volunteers. These roles may include developing liaisons with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the American Red Cross, the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System, and the U.S. Army Veterinary Core at the Department of Defense. The U.S. Army Veterinary Core is activated at the request of a state’s governor via the president of the United States. DHHS provides National Veterinary Response Teams (NVRTs), formally named Veterinary Medical Assistant Teams (VMATs), to assist local authorities during a federal emergency. NVRTs provide care to injured animals and assist with preventative measures to maintain human health and safety. In addition, NVRTs also provide support for assessment and monitoring of zoonotic diseases and their risk for transmission. It is well established that some diseases can jump species, from animal to human (zoonosis). Moreover, a number of the most virulent and dangerous diseases the world has seen came from animals. These include human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), avian and swine flu, and the recent Ebola outbreak of 2014. The NVRTs can be deployed to assist in the management of animals with potential for zoonotic spread of disease. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for assessing food supply safety issues during disaster situations, including disease outbreaks.
NVRTs also care for the search and rescue and law enforcement animals that may also deploy to a disaster scene. Like humans, animals can be injured, stressed, or worked to exhaustion in a natural or human-made disaster response. Care for these animals is a crucial part of maintaining their effectiveness in a disaster zone. Adequate food and water should be provided. Moreover, the immediate care of injury and illness, as well as scheduled rest and sleep periods, are vital to their ongoing well-being of animals and mission-critical tasks.
Once a command structure is in place, pet owners need to identify the types of disasters for which they are at risk. To assist pet owners in this process, it is recommended that veterinarians promote the creation of individual household disaster plans. Farms and large agricultural centers with a large number of animals will need to provide an equally detailed evacuation plan that ensures the appropriate feeding, sheltering, and burial of livestock.
NVRTs should be called into emergency situations to augment state and local veterinary resources until a self-sufficient response solution is reached in the disaster area. NVRTs should be available immediately after a disaster, slowly tapering off as local needs decrease and local resources expand to meet the needs of the victim population. NVRTs consist of two or more veterinarians, four or more veterinary technicians, and one to three logistical support personnel. The director of the Offices of Emergency Response within DHHS and the American Veterinary Medical Association should activate NVRT intervention in an emergency. With necessary medical equipment and supplies at their disposal, these teams will operate as mobile units in disaster areas, responding to advice from regional veterinary activities commanders.
Identifying potential problems in a disaster begins with the process of eliminating any mitigating hazards that may be present on a farm or in an area with animals. Alternative housing and shelter locations, clean food and water access, and accessible transportation must be designated before successful egress can occur. Repairs to barns and buildings will help to decrease the number of potential dangers during evacuation procedures. Most farms have the workforce and resources to move a large number of animals. Farm cats and dogs should be placed in a disaster-proof location or, because they generally stay close to their homes, turned loose. If shelter cannot be found for aggressive animals, euthanasia is the most humane method of treatment.
Animals that are important to agricultural production or have sentimental value need to be identified ahead of time so they can be transported rapidly. Large-animal transports may present a problem to human evacuation, clogging already busy exit routes; therefore alternative evacuation routes need to be considered in advance. In the event that animal evacuation is not possible, sources of shelter, food, and water will need to be designated, and a plan that addresses how best to reenter the disaster area to attend to the animals must be in place.
It is important that local kennels and pet shelters are able to accommodate the influx of small animals during a disaster. Veterinarians are the best channels for communicating with local pet owners about the safe evacuation of their pets. The American Red Cross, although it does not shelter animals, should also be able to provide information, in coordination with local animal shelters, on how to care for pets in evacuation areas.
Veterinarians play an important role during disasters. Their primary responsibilities include control of disease factors and disease transmission, herd management, animal health care, animal control, disaster assessment, and search and rescue operations. Even though it is important that veterinarians have the resources available to locate and call on appropriate experts during a disaster, they also will need to address the proper sheltering of animals, provide advice to animal owners on nutritional requirements, tend to the proper disposal of carcasses, provide housing to animals, manage food safety, and care for sick and injured animals. Veterinarians should have detailed maps of animal centers in their areas, such as veterinary hospitals, boarding kennels, fairgrounds, racetracks, and other evacuation locations, including slaughterhouse facilities. Veterinarians should also organize therapeutic intervention methods, systems, procedures, and processes to prevent potential illnesses.
A large number of animal habitats around industrial livestock production facilities and home farms may be destroyed during a disaster, jeopardizing vital food stores. Diseases, exacerbated by impaired food and water supplies, could lead to outbreaks of food poisoning, typhoid, cholera, infectious hepatitis, and gastroenteritis. Removal of fences and enclosures results in the release of animals that subsequently roam unrestricted, increasing their interaction with wildlife, domestic animals, and human populations, providing vectors for potential disease transmission. In addition, veterinarians with training in food and meat hygiene should decide which foods (e.g., milk or meat products) are potentially unsafe and which are acceptable for human consumption in the given disaster circumstances.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has created a disaster-preparedness series, which is included on its website, designed to educate both pet owners and the large industrial animal producers on the natural and technological aspects of disaster preparation. The University of California-Davis Veterinary School also provides online information for facilities planning to offer animal care during evacuations. Animal care operations can find additional printable forms online to help organize the influx of evacuated animals.
Disasters may occur when owners are away from home. In such instances, stickers placed around the homeowner’s property in advance can aid rescue personnel. These stickers should contain information pertaining to the types of animals located on the property, the location of the animals, their possible hiding spots, and the location of evacuation supplies. Owners should designate a neighbor familiar with their animals and evacuation plans to be responsible for the animals in the event that they are not at home when a disaster occurs. Identification tags, including rabies and license tags, will help reunite owners with their pets after a disaster. Identification should include the owner’s name, home address, phone number, and an out-of-state phone number of someone who can be contacted in the event of an emergency. Suggested methods for identifying large and small animals are included in Box 51-1 .