Companion animals in disaster response planning--the First Dog speaks out.
Sam is not just a dog or pet. He is my running partner, companion, and guardian. I love that big galoot even when he drinks from the toilet bowl and then nuzzles me. Sam loves me with all his heart and would give his life without hesitation to protect mine. So if I were being rescued from a national disaster as our friends in Louisiana and Mississippi were last year, I would not have the heart to abandon him. I cannot imagine looking down on Sam from a helicopter knowing he would drown, starve, or become a wild predator. Those who were rescued after the hurricanes last year suffered trauma when they were forced to abandon their companion animals. Still worse was the path taken by those who refused to leave a dangerous situation because their companion pets could not go with them.
This very dilemma reached the President's desk recently (that is, the desk of the President of the United States, owner of the American First Dog). According to Jennifer G. Wright, D.V.M., M.P.V.M., who was quoted in a recent article by CDC Connects reporter Kathy Nellis, "'A bill was recently passed giving the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authority to finance shelter renovations for temporarily housing pets and requiring all state and local governments to include household pets in their emergency evacuation plans.'" Wright spent two weeks on a team headed by Stephanie R. Ostrowski, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Preventative Medicine and a member of our office at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stephanie is also a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service. She received the United States Coast Guard Meritorious Service Award for her performance in Louisiana October 15 to November 15, 2005, on this significant public health mission. Captain Ostrowski noted that animals are part of this mission, primarily because of significant psychological-social impacts that affect citizen participation in evacuation activities.
About 60 to 70 percent of American households today have pets. Studies commissioned by veterinary associations reveal that the majority of Americans think of their household pets as family. Like any other dependent, an animal triggers an owner's sense of responsibility for its safety. More children today share their home with a pet than a sibling or a father. Also, many single adults live relatively isolated from family and social networks. Both these children and these single adults experience their pets as primary companions. Abandoning the pets is a profoundly traumatic experience, and traumatized survivors are more likely to experience themselves as victims, which can prolong and compound mental-health issues. Likewise, those who feel empowered to protect their pets and keep them safe are more likely to regain normal life sooner and to experience a sense of competence.
Besides getting all the animal emergency rescue groups meeting together in a collaborative fashion, Captain Ostrowski facilitated the creation of a strategic plan for a collective called Companion Animal Emergency Management. The meetings yielded the following primary points:
* the need to write a specific companion-animal annex to the National Response Plan;
* the need for coordinated dispatching during search and rescue activities;
* the need to focus on more detailed arrangements for joint pet-owner evacuation and sheltering as a prevention piece of the plan, based on the recognition that many citizens will stay behind--in harm's way--if there is no way for them to take their pet household members to safety with them;
* the recognition that more human lives can be saved if separation of pets and owners is prevented through assistance of neighbors and local organizations who are the only ones in place to help during the actual evacuation period; and
* the need to create and implement a formal credentialing process, with national standards and guidelines, for animal emergency responders.
My strong feelings about Sam put me with the majority of Americans who love their pets like family and want to be able to ensure their safety. Sam tells me that he is relieved about the attention being focused on animal well-being. I am heartened as well and urge appropriate planning, prevention, and processing. Companion animals play too significant a role in our lives for us to dismiss them in emergency procedures. The common good also is served by appropriate and humane handling of our pets.
The First Dog, Sam Collins, barked this order to me: He wants all environmental health, public health, and safety professionals to perk up your ears, leash your energies, and start wagging the systemic issues at all levels. This is Part 1 of a critical-awareness campaign about the response to companion animals. The Second Dog and the First Cat--Fred and Ranger, respectively--want their say next month.
All the Collins family members wish you happy--and safe--holidays.
CAPT Richard F. Collins, R.S., M.S.E.H., D.A.A.S.
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|Title Annotation:||President's Message|
|Author:||Collins, Richard F.|
|Publication:||Journal of Environmental Health|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2006|
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