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What happens to animals in natural disasters?

We know too well the human cost of natural disasters. People are displaced, homes are destroyed and communities feel the tremor of death. But amidst the panic and chaos, the plight of animals is ignored. In the wake of the recent flood disaster in Australia's north and the fury of Cyclone Yasi, Sarah Langston looks at the impact animals face when catastrophe strikes.

13 February 2011

In Iowa in June 2008, the rivers of the eastern part of the state burst. They overran their banks and covered the earth in a blanket of grey and sepia, wiping the map and obliterating homes, jobs and lives. The Upper Mississippi river and the Cedar fattened and gorged, and Iowa City was rendered a mess. There were deaths – people swept away, people trapped.

The 2006 Rolling Stone investigation 'Boss Hog' detailed how intensive pig farms sprawled across the mid-west of America, housing millions of pigs in cramped conditions. When the Iowa floods hit, many of these animals were trapped and drowned, most likely in a mix of floodwater and faeces. Many others were swept into the rivers, with those not drowned fighting their way to higher ground.

Some made the best of the wilds and some were rescued by animal welfare and activist groups – despite the legal difficulties of rescuing 'food' animals under current agricultural law in that state. Farm Sanctuary is one such group. Their blog '2008 Midwest Flood Pig Rescue' tells the story of their efforts. Pregnant sows who would have spent their lives in gestation crates gave birth on warm straw with appropriate medical attention. Pigs were adopted out to the community, and none returned to factory farms.

Other pigs received very different treatment. They who had swum through floodwaters and crawled up levee banks to safety, were shot for trying to clamber over sandbags. Their bodies were left to rot as “roadkill” and “casualties of the floods”. Animal rights groups and community members expressed outrage at what they perceived to be cavalier and an unnecessarily violent handling of the flood survivors.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the impact that a natural disaster can have on companion animals. 600,000 companion animals were killed, displaced and trapped in homes to drown or starve.  Authorities refused entry of animals to shelters, forcing their human carers to abandon them.

The emotional impact of this upon the human community provoked the US House of Representatives to pass the bi-partisan Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act which requires companion and 'service' animals to be accommodated by states seeking help from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).

Australia is no stranger to nature's vicious whims, nor hydrological devastation. The recent Queensland Floods – followed closely last week by the fury of the category-five Cyclone Yasi - have shaken the state with their intensity. As tales of rising human death tolls hit the national media, so too did images and stories of trapped and injured cows and wallabies.

In Australia, the responsibility of responding to the threat to animal life falls on the Department of Primary Industries. It is their job to call on welfare organisations and to co-ordinate rescue and treatment efforts of displaced, injured and hungry animals. One such organisation is the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA).

RSPCA Media Officer Marianne Zander told The Scavenger last week that the major concerns for animals during natural disasters and particularly during the Queensland Floods and Cyclone Yasi have been pressing, with a hierarchy of concern which welfare bodies work through.

“The primary concern would be the immediate evacuation and subsequent rescue of animals to protect them from danger or injury,” she said.

“Other concerns would be to ensure the provision of basic requirements such as food, fresh water and shelter/protection.  Additional issues would be treating any injuries sustained, avoiding/treating diseases (which are often spread through mosquitoes, polluted water, exposure to animal carcasses and debris), reuniting animals with their owners, and the management of displaced wildlife whose habitats may have been destroyed.”

Animals who need help often rely on the sparse resources of welfare bodies who receive little government funding, mostly running on public donations. In the case of their own facilities being damaged by the Queensland flooding – Fairfield RSPCA was one such location – volunteers and workers often lack resources needed to get the job done.

“Sometimes, there may be capacity within the existing disaster management system for some of the costs to be recouped.  RSPCA only receives about 2-3% of its funding from the government, so in the case of property damage sustained by RSPCA QLD, they’re relying heavily on monetary donations from the public,” Zander said.

Michael Linke, RSPCA Queensland Media Officer, said that there have been desperate times for animals and their carers in the state since the waters hit a few weeks ago.

“The flooding in Rockhampton and surrounding areas was sudden. In Condamine the whole place went under,” Linke told The Scavenger.

“It was so sudden that authorities said people couldn't take their pets. They were forced to go without them, and many were euthanised on the spot rather than be left. Still others left them in their house and moved them up as high as they could.”

In areas such as Theodore, animals were sheltered and then moved on. Similarly, Rockhampton managed to erect a temporary shelter for animals at the University near the evacuation centre. The human companions of these animals were situated at the evacuation centre, and able to help care for them during the crisis.

Linke has heard both stories of tender heroism and woeful ill-treatment in the wake of the disaster. One man freed twenty neglected horses from a flooding paddock that had been abandoned by its owner. On the flipside, the RSPCA had to free trapped bullocks from a paddock awash with water. They were unable to escape due to their owners chaining heavy logs around their necks to prevent them slipping through fences.

Thankfully, the rate of euthanasia of injured animals has been low, and wildlife have not suffered as badly as domesticated animals.

“At least they've been able to get away, and haven't run into too much trouble. There's been some trapping in fences and the like, but they've been mostly ok,” Linke said.

“A real problem with Cyclone Yasi is how the bird population is being hit. They're being caught in the high winds and some birds have been stripped of feathers and lost habitat.”

The RSPCA works in conjunction with wildlife carers, other community welfare organisations, local and state councils and the Department of Primary Industries. Despite this, too much of the work is being left to the RSPCA, community volunteers and donations in the grip of such events.

Linke says the Queensland Floods and Cyclone Yasi have revealed the gaps in co-ordination and resourcing that have been problematic for some time.

“We need something more concrete than that. We were working towards something like the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act in the US that provides for the accommodation of animals.”

“We were working with the State Disaster Committee before and will be after this. We need firmly designated evacuation places.”

Linke also urged those responsible for domesticated animals to plan ahead and not be caught out in the event of a natural event that threatens their home.

“Be proactive. Don't forget your animals. If it looks as though you may have to be evacuated get the animals out first to friends or family on higher ground.”

You can donate to the RSPCA's Queensland flood appeal by visiting their support page.

You can donate to the Farm Sanctuary project by visiting their contributions page.

Sarah Langston is associate editor at The Scavenger.


0 #2 shane 2012-03-21 08:45
that is sad what they would do to those pigs i thought this was going to teach me on how humans affected the animals life in natural disasters if u want to kill a pig to it like a man wild bore hunt down in iowa we should not be killing pigs just to let them roat and decay and least eat there meat so they had some perpuse of ife.
0 #1 Marilyn Knapp Litt 2011-02-12 23:47
Do not look at the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act as setting the standard. It mandates that animals must be "considered" in evacuation planning. You can "consider " something and table it. Here is how it works. States like California, that often have disasters requiring evacuation, set up shelter for animals. That does NOT mean that transportation is provided for animals or that any assistance is given when people or shelters have to evacuate. Quite the contrary, police and fire officials still waste valuable time trying to tell people they have to leave without their animals.

States that do not often have disasters seem surprised when animals arrive. So much for the legislation.

What really works is the legislation passed by the State of Louisiana, Louisiana's Pet Evacuation Law 615. It mandates that a state agency assist in the evacuation of animals. So busses are sent for people and they can take their animals. Shelter is also provided of course. I saw this in action and it really works. That should be your model - assisted evacuation & an evacuee shelter for animals.

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