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Creating A Plan So That No Pets Are Left Behind

1,918 square miles have been flooded in Colorado forcing 5,350 individuals to evacuate – many by air. Some of the helicopters conducting airlifts carried more pets than people to safety.

A spokesman for the National Guard says the motto during one of the largest evacuations in Colorado history was "no pets left behind."

By Wednesday more than 800 pets had been ferried to safety via helicopter, along with their owners. Hundreds more were rescued in ground operations. Red Cross shelters had food, water, and on-site kennels to ensure that already stressed evacuees wouldn't have the added anxiety of being separated from their pets. 


It’s a shift away from past evacuation plans that basically discouraged people from taking their animals when forced to flee in a disaster. With large numbers of people staying in shelters, emergency officials were trying to avoid problems with animal fears or allergies. On top of that, many people consider it more important to save people rather than pets.

First responders learned that approach had unintended and deadly consequences, especially during Hurricane Katrina.

“We learned… that 44 percent of the people that didn’t evacuate their homes during Katrina did not do so because they could not take their pets,” says Dr. Ragan Adams, a veterinarian at Colorado State University and coordinator of the CSU Veterinary Extension team. “So if we’re going to save those people, and also keep first responders out of danger, we need to make some sort of arrangement for peoples’ pets, who have become part of their family.”

Within a year of the Katrina disaster, Congress in 2006 passed bipartisan legislation requiring counties and states to have some kind of emergency plan for pets in order to qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. Colorado is working on creating its own statewide pet disaster plan.

The CSU Veterinary Extension Team and other veterinarians across the state are collaborating on the effort.

“We got USDA money to support extension agents who are critical in their local communities to help all the entities who would be involved in such planning come together,” Adams says. “Emergency managers in these counties often understand about roads and fire and human evacuation, but they don’t have any idea what to do with animals. This is where the Extension people come in and can offer their expertise.”

Credit Nurpu / Creative Commons/Flickr
A solitary horse grazes in a floodplain. Taken Sept. 13, 2013

Although the legislation implied the plan should account for ‘traditional’ pets – dogs, cats, and birds – Adams says the state’s plan will be inclusive of the many animals Coloradans consider being part of their families.

“We all know within the human-animal bond it’s difficult to define to a person what a pet ‘should’ be,” Adams says. “Shelters must be happy to accept someone’s hermit crab, as well as their boa constrictor, their llama, as well as their horse. Because if that animal is defined as someone’s pet that animal means a lot to them during this emotional time of evacuation.”

Guidelines for people tasked with setting up shelters to accommodate pets will be part of the statewide plan, but Adams says the project is also meant to educate individual pet owners.

“They have a responsibility not only for their pet’s health but for their pet’s welfare during disasters,” says Adams. “It’s important to make a preparation for your particular animals yourself. Do you have three days of water and food for the animal? Do you have their leashes… some kind of cage to transport them? You should have a ready-go kit for your animals so you can leave with them at a moment’s notice.”

The statewide pet disaster plan is expected to be completed September 2014.

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