I won’t leave home without Fido

Apr 05

Disaster communications and policy changes means residents and their furry family members are safer, more accommodated

Recently a colleague shared an article discussing the impact that the loss of a pet can have on humans –the grief can be extreme, akin to the loss of their human family members and friends.

Ok, so maybe I tend to have crazy cat person qualities (we have two cats at home), but as we’re heading into this year’s summer storm season, the article got me thinking about the emotional toll that disasters – and the impact of losing your pets during them –  can have on families. Many studies have explored how the love for pets and animals can lead to increased happiness, or even longevity. But the love for our pets can also influence choices we make that impact our safety.

The notion that you should evacuate with your pet was not always understood or easy to do. And although the message “don’t leave home without your pet” was part of disaster preparedness and response communications prior to Hurricane Katrina, pet-friendly shelters weren’t always easy to find or mandated by law. Communications regarding pets and disasters was usually a secondary message – as the enormity of human actions regarding their pets wasn’t fully understood, or possibly appreciated.

As a social marketer focused on disaster communications, what I find interesting is the great shift that occurred when communications and policy began to reflect what we know about human emotions, rather than fight against it. Building relevance to people’s lives is key to motivating action and changing behavior. And when it comes to disaster safety, including pets in the equation has done just that.

Hurricane Katrina became a catalyst for focusing more attention on the need for consistent communications, and policy – so that relief efforts weren’t hindered.  For example, a poll conducted by the Fritz Institute in 2006 showed that 44 percent of those who didn’t evacuate during Katrina stayed because they didn’t want to leave pets behind. In contrast, only 18 percent reported that they stayed behind because of relatives. That was a wake up call. An article in Dog’s Life Magazine marking the 5-year anniversary of Katrina also documents the public awakening to the plight of animals killed or left homeless and the resistance from residents to leave them behind after Katrina.  Gloria Dauphin, assistant to the CEO at the Louisiana SPCA is quoted as saying “We learned that animals must have a place at the table when it comes to disaster planning and response. We learned that saving pets [means] saving people.” Following Katrina, the federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS act) and amendments to the Stafford Disaster Relief Act addressed needs for household pets during disasters. Many states and communities have followed suit with local laws to protect pets, and by extension, their owners. And more than ever, officials and organizations are focused on outreach efforts that prioritize pet resources and tips.

Skip to present day: Is it working?

When Hurricane Irene threatened the east coast last August, I found myself urging my parents, who live in Bethany Beach, Del., to evacuate. A mile inland from the coast, I had cause to worry – not just about them – but because that week in August just happened to coincide with “Grandparent camp,” when my parents take care of my two young nieces. This time they had another addition – one of their fuzzy granddaughters – my cat Lila. Here she is…

Understandably, they were initially concerned about being there in case something happened to the house, but everyone’s concern for my nieces and my questions about “What will happen to Lila?” if they stayed too long  got their attention and got them on the road to Washington, DC. Leaving Lila behind didn’t even come up as an option. Instead, they were equipped with the list of shelters along the way that took pets, just in case they needed to stop.

Some may find that staying behind and putting yourself and your family in harm’s way for your pet is a bit extreme. I have certainly felt that way – but working through the  evacuation steps during Hurricane Irene underscored the emotions we can feel when it comes our pets. I’m happy to see that a choice between being safe and protecting your pet isn’t one we have to make as often, due to widespread acceptance of pets as part of the disaster preparedness, response, and communications process.

Click here for more resources and to find a pet-friendly shelter in your state. And if my suggestion doesn’t motivate  you to learn more, maybe this picture will:

Click for more puppies, I mean resources.

See? Cute puppies always work.

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 5th, 2012 at 4:47 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Emergency + Risk Communication, Public Safety, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “I won’t leave home without Fido”

  1. Nice column, Meg! It is very important, as you say, for crisis and disaster managers to understand how a pet owner feels when its dog/cat or other beloved pet could be in danger. I am one who could not leave my dogs behind if I couldn’t take them with me. Thanks for the list of shelters – definitely comes in handy. Keep it up, fellow pet lover!

  2. Meg says:

    Thanks Yazmine. Yeah, it’s a topic that’s really interested me personally and professionally – really since Katrina. Some sources document up to 600,000 animals killed or left homeless after Katrina – which was also a huge issue in addition to the thousands of residents left in harm’s way because they just wouldn’t leave their pets. Using those insights about human behavior to form new policies and communications was the right move, I think.