The last few days have seen a deluge of rain across the nation, in particular in the Bay of Plenty and the Coromandel. The rainfall led to the state of emergency being declared for the area of Ngongotaha by the Mayor of Rotorua on the evening of 29 April 2018.
It was encouraging to see that Rotorua Animal Control were activated to assist and I applaud them for responding. However, the advice for evacuees was vague saying “Animal Control is ready at the emergency welfare centre ready to assess and animals that also need evacuating” and some members of the community were unsure what to do (see facebook thread below), whereas it would be best practice to advise evacuees:
“If its not safe for you, its not safe for them. Always evacuate with your pets. Our evacuation centre accepts pets”
One media article at the end commented “We’ll look after your pets… Just take your essentials” (pets are essentials!). Sadly, this was the exact advice that some officials gave during Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of animals died as they could not be rescued in time. One very disturbing case was law enforcement officers said the same, but their interpretation of “looking after the pets” was to slaughter them with their firearms.
Even today, both the SPCA NZ and World Animal Protection on Facebook provided advice including “If you have to leave your pets behind…” and this is the advice animal disaster experts have been trying to discourage as it normalises forced abandonment, degrades the concept of responsible ownership, fails to recognise that pets are part of the family (and that family units should evacuate and remain together for psychosocial support), and puts both animals at risk and humans who attempt to rescue them. If they are left behind, who then is legally responsible for their welfare? No one? the owner still? Fire Service? Civil Defence? SPCA? MPI? Police?
We wouldn’t say “If you have to leave your children behind…”, so it is imperative that animal welfare organisations are the voice for the animals using current best practice to inform public messaging.
As the former head of FEMA, Administrator Craig Fugate has said “animals are people, they are not separate…pets are part of the family”. I don’t know any emergency manager in New Zealand that would be more highly regarded and experienced than Craig.
The old message was “evacuate or you will die!”, but leave enough food and water for your pets – Craig Fugate, FEMA Administrator
This contradictory and specieist statement sums it up nicely and Fugate goes on to say “As a basic rule in most disasters, we should never tell people not to evacuate with their pets”. You can see more wise words from Craig below.
Now, we move onto the dog that is stuck 150m down a gorge. The owner attempted to rescue it, but needed rescuing himself. Fire & Emergency NZ rescued the owner, but was not able to rescue the dog. At this point, you may think I am going to have a crack at FENZ, actually no. A scared pig dog is the last thing firefighters are trained to deal with, just as SPCA Rescue Technicians are not trained to put out large structure fires. I actually commend them for making a risk assessment and acknowledging their limitations.
My only caveat is that animal rescues are just as critical as human rescues. I say this because it is sadly too common for caring humans to put themselves at risk to save an animals life.
The sooner the animal is saved, the sooner you remove the risk of a human putting themselves at risk. In Operation Poppy I commanded two years ago, a bystander was adamant that he could swim across the swollen rising river to save the horse and the Police had to be called to remove him. In other cases, the people have died trying to save animals or saving those who have tried to save animals including the Gaylene Dunn of Masterton and police officer Mike Toon in Palmerston North respectively, just in the past few years. And this behaviour happens around the world such as in Canada, where a person died trying to rescue their friends dog from an iced lake.
Finally, we also had the dog was electrocuted by lightening during the storm. Our animal welfare laws do not keep pace with international best practice in regards to animal disaster management. In the state of Texas, it is illegal to tether a dog outside during extreme weather (Texas Code 821.077). This sad (but avoidable) incident, could have been avoided if there was improved awareness by owners that companion animals should be taken inside (and other animals equally afforded reasonable protection too) during storms. There is even a table comparing US state laws on dog tethering.
We have failed the animals yet again by not heeding the lessons of previous disasters.
So in New Zealand, we still have more to do to meet best practice with evacuation messaging. In fact we have a lot more to do in the wider programme of animal emergency management, across all phases from reduction, readiness, response and recovery. Further information on how to be prepared can be found on my earlier blog.
Hopefully, agencies and organisations can invest more time and resource into this area, so that all the family is better prepared for the next event. I certainly put my hand up to offer advice to make sure we can do better, we all should.