Dr. Mary-Ellen Themens is a rural veterinarian based in Dalhousie, N.B. She has served 20 years on the council of New Brunswick's principal veterinary medicine association.
If faced with a few short hours to leave your home or business after an evacuation notice, have you planned out what you could do about your pets or livestock?
Fires and floods, avalanche, disease, industrial accidents and transportation disasters are becoming all too familiar across Canada. Natural, and unnatural, disasters feel ever more heart wrenching, as non-stop streaming media reports tell us what people suffer when threatened and evacuated.
The rescue of human victims and the safety of responders must always take first priority, but let's also prepare well in advance realistic contingency plans for the animals whose lives depend on us.
An animal rescue plan also saves human lives. It is well documented that owners frequently put themselves in grave danger rather than leave their animals behind. We can do more to keep safe those humans and animals under threat.
When a community drills its disaster plan for human rescue, this is the time to also address an animal evacuation strategy. The bigger the animals, the more vital it is to plan ahead. With livestock and horses, for example, even the best owners may only have the means of transporting one at a time. Consequently, in an emergency, owners face two options: Start evacuating the animals long before anyone else, making multiple trips while road conditions allow, or pool resources.
Reality compels us to take individual responsibility and couple it with available regional resources. If there is no co-operation and co-ordination between the two, it becomes a disaster within a crisis.
A community plan has to be built from the ground up with clear indication of how to proceed, including not just first responders but also mutual aid sources and advance identification of safe space for keeping the animals once extracted. The solution comes from including and co-ordinating neighbours, livestock associations, horse clubs and county emergency planners in the planning stage. In a true emergency there is little time to think, only to act – hopefully deliberately, effectively and together.
Animals are also at risk when owners are in peril and, whether pets or livestock, they are not just nameless, faceless entities to their owners, but living creatures depending on us for their survival. The bond between an animal and its owner can be as strong as the emotional attachment of parent to child.
In my practice, I frequently have to manage the always-tragic loss of a pet. I have also seen the deep anguish in a woman's face upon the loss of her herd – reflecting not only the economic and genetic impact, but the devastating emotional toll. I also saw the steely determination in the same farmer's face to save a survivor, no matter what, upon finding a kitten alive and hidden under the floorboards of her smouldering barn, its paws and face burned. It was important to her that the animal make it. She had lost so much when the barn went up, and saving this little bundle of fur was a much needed "win" to hang onto in the face of painful loss. She wasn't going to lose it, too.
As we plan to protect what we love, the impact that animals have in our daily lives cannot be ignored. It is important for public safety that contingency for animals be explicitly built into Canadian emergency plans. The time to act is now, in advance. We might not save all the heartbeats, but we can surely save many more.