Representatives of approximately 100 government agencies, veterinary and humane organizations, and industry groups gathered at the AVMA National Animal Disaster Summit in May with the goal of preventing future animal-related disasters similar to those witnessed during last year's hurricane season.
When Hurricane Katrina landed along the Gulf Coast, it became painfully obvious how many pet owners were ill-prepared. Moreover, the government's emergency responders were overwhelmed by the extreme numbers of abandoned pets—50,000 by some estimates—many of them in need of veterinary care.
Images of emaciated cats or dead dogs lying along flooded streets stirred the nation to make sure that such a tragedy would not be repeated. In short order, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act was introduced in Congress. If passed, the legislation (H.R. 3858/S. 2548) would require local and state emergency authorities to include pets and service animals in their evacuation plans.
Then in November, the AVMA Executive Board green-lighted a plan by Dr. Bonnie V. Beaver for the Association to host a national disaster summit. Dr. Beaver, the AVMA immediate past president, wanted to bring together key individuals from humane organizations and government agencies to evaluate the emergency response for pets following hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.
These experiences, positive and negative, are the basis of a report, to be published in a future issue of JAVMA, describing a more efficient model to help in the evacuation and rescue of pets during major disasters.
When the two-day summit convened May 5 in Arlington, Va., attendees representing a diverse array of public and private entities, from the Homeland Security Department to the American Kennel Club, were on hand to offer their suggestions for a national plan.
"Before Katrina, we felt that we were prepared—our Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, our state animal rescue teams, our humane organizations, and our governmental agencies. We were not," AVMA President Henry E. Childers told the assembly.
"Many lessons were learned, good and bad," Dr. Childers continued. "It's only through learning from your past experiences, your mistakes, and your successes, that we can be better prepared the next time around."
Attendees spent the first day, separated in groups, identifying major obstacles they encountered during the 2005 hurricane season in the following areas: identifying a lead agency; logistics and resource management; communications; animal evacuation plans, tracking, and reunification; and volunteer management, credentialing, and training.
The groups generated an extensive list of problems. For instance, they cited the lack of a single agency responsible for animal care as contributing to systemic disorganization. The absence of a unified chain of command caused deficient coordination and made emergency responders and volunteers wonder about their duties.
There was also no central location for receiving veterinary supplies and donations. Communications with responders, media, and the public were in disarray. Guidelines for evacuating pets were unclear. Few animals were microchipped, complicating reunification with owners. Tracking animals that had been transported across the country to temporary homes was another problem.
On the final day, attendees offered many possible remedies. To enhance communication, it was proposed that the state animal rescue teams create a national animal disaster Web site. Run by the AVMA Animal Welfare Division and linked with the states, the site would contain sections on volunteer management, donations, and animal fostering and a place for pet owners to request assistance with animal rescue, feed, and other items.
Another recommendation was for the appointment of a central logistics officer to coordinate and oversee all donations and supplies.
The boldest suggestion was to form a National Multi-Agency Coordination Group to serve as a unifying, ongoing national forum for animal emergency management issues. The group would comprise government agencies, such as the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments; associations, including the AVMA and U.S. Animal Health Association; state-based organizations; industry; and other stakeholders.
As to the matter of people being barred from evacuating with their pets, one group suggested the AVMA and other organizations should work with the American Red Cross to change these rules. (The Red Cross currently forbids all animals, except service animals, from evacuee shelters for reasons of public health and safety.) One possibility is to allow for "parallel" shelters with evacuees on one side and pets on the other.
Disaster preparedness for livestock was also discussed. One group suggested that major species associations develop guidelines to help educate their members about disaster or emergency preparedness. For example, the American Association of Equine Practitioners offers a downloadable, online brochure that describes equine practitioners' role in disasters, education of clients, and how to establish a local response system.
Following the summit, Dr. Beaver said she was "extremely pleased" with the enthusiasm and participation she witnessed, and by the discussions between the group representatives. In addition, she hopes coalitions will be formed that break down the barriers that have traditionally separated the groups. "Ultimately, it's not about who gets the recognition. It's about who gets the help," she said.