Do Animals Matter?
By: Dori Dumont
I had just finished working a 14-hour day at a rescue animal shelter setup at the local fairground in Moore, Okla., in aftermath of the tornado that flattened 12 miles of the town. A man in a city utility truck pulled up next to me and rolled down his window. I noticed a black lab lying on the seat next to him. I don’t remember the man’s name, but his story and smile are etched in my heart forever.
“Hi there.” He said with a slight southern accent and a big friendly Oklahoman smile.
“Hi, how are you?” I responded, not sure what kind of answer I was going to get, or why he had stopped his vehicle by me.
He replied, “I’m doing great.” I asked him if he lived in the area. “Yep, I lost my house.” His smile waned a bit, but then returned as he reached over and stroked the dog.
I said, “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry to hear this.”
All of a sudden my exhaustion felt insignificant. I could tell this man needed to tell someone his story…and I was eager to listen.
He told me, “When the tornado hit, my house began to shake like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I grabbed Max, by the collar,” he said, and nodded toward the black lab next to him. “But, I couldn’t find Sandy, my old yellow lab who’s almost blind. She was somewhere in the house, but I didn’t have time to find her. Max and I had to get to the basement under my garage.”
It was half an hour later when he opened the basement door, and saw sky above. All that remained of his house was a large antique bank safe that had been situated on the first floor of his two-story house. The safe was now lying on its side at the far-end of his back property.
He said, “I was in total shock...and Sandy was nowhere in sight.”
He told me it was completely quiet and eerie as people came out of their basements. He compared it to what a warzone might look like immediately after a bombing.
“It was a miracle that all my neighbors were accounted for,” he said, “but unfortunately not all of their pets were located.”
He told me that as soon as Max scrambled out of the basement, he lifted his nose, sniffed the air and dashed around smelling the debris by the house. He caught a scent and ran straight across the street to a 4 feet pile of rubble--and began to bark. “When I got there,” he said, “I was surprised that the pile was mostly my stuff.”
He pulled up a large piece of what was left of his Lazy-Boy sofa, and found Sandy lying there shaking. He said she had a few open wounds on one leg, but otherwise okay. “I grabbed her with one arm and hugged Max with the other, and broke down and cried.” He told me he had everything that was important to him, and said not everyone was that lucky.
No one can dispute that weather disasters are becoming more common each year. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, it caught not only the people living in the area off guard, but city and government officials were unprepared for the aftermath. Rescue decisions were made to get people out quickly and into shelters. Animals were not allowed rescue at the time of forced evacuation, mainly due to the Red Cross having a National Policy of not accepting animals into their shelters. National news coverage showed pets pulled out of crying kid’s arms, elderly people in hysterics where forced to leave their beloved pets and even service animals where denied passage. As people were forced into boats, helicopters and busses, the animals were left behind to fend for themselves.
This situation created such a negative effect on the human victims and general public, that in a time when many people still consider animals their personal property, and place their worth on monetary value, it became an eye-opener.
President Bush became aware of the tragedy and proposed a bill that would protect animals in the future during a disaster. In 2006, the PETS Act (Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act) was passed and signed.
The law allows federal disaster assistance funding for states having preparedness plans for people with service animals or pets, with provisions for rescue, care, shelter and essential needs. President Bush’s rationale behind this plan was that Katrina proved people were less likely to protect themselves during an emergency if their animals could not be provided for.
In a time when disasters appear to be happening more frequently and with larger severity, it is comforting to know that animals are being recognized as an important aspect of people’s lives. Hopefully in the future, the Katrina episode, where over 250,000 pets were left behind, will not be repeated.
In 2012, Super Storm Sandy devastated much of the Atlantic coast, targeting New York City and the New Jersey area. I was proud to be a part of a federal deployment where National Veterinary Response Teams were sent to aide an SPCA emergency shelter for the animals of the people who lost their homes. Pet owners would come in to visit their animal(s) for hours and would cry when they had to leave. Many of these people were put up in hotels until they could find elsewhere to live and be reunited with their pets.
Like many Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy victims, and like the man I spoke with in Moore, Oklahoma, these pets are all they have left in the world. Do animals matter? It appears the Government is starting to think so.