In the course of just a few days, PETA's headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, was rocked by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake and then clobbered by Hurricane Irene. Half of the underside of our headquarters blew away, and renting out rafts on the river that was once our road could have kept us in dog treats for a year. Luckily, all the building's occupants, including Brandi, Bubbles and Marshall, the cats who live on the top floor, emerged unscathed. The cats were already wise to sudden shake-ups: They had been left homeless before, dumped by residents of New Orleans in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. They weathered the last two emergencies, thanks to well-rehearsed emergency procedures.
Natural disasters are unpredictable and uncontrollable, which is why it's crucial to make emergency plans for everyone in the family--including our animal companions--before a disaster strikes. It's not a responsibility to shrug off.
Most people did the right thing, taking their dogs, cats and other animals with them if they evacuated. But others decided to leave town without making plans and left animals behind to "fend for themselves" in the high winds, pounding rain, lightning, flying debris and floods. One person even asked us for "a heavier chain" to tie down his dog because his other dog was swept off her feet during Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
PETA staffers worked day and night rescuing animals who were left behind. We found a dog who had been left in a pen with only a sheet of plywood above him for "shelter" for three days, as winds neared 70 miles per hour. He is now indoors with his new foster parents, who report that he will not leave their side.
We found a puppy tied so tightly to a grill by a shoelace that she had to stay standing in order to avoid strangling. She had been left like that all night in a flood plain that had been evacuated. What if we hadn't found her? We took her to our headquarters, dried her off, gave her a good meal and found her a foster home. She's only 10 weeks old. What an introduction to human nature.
Two dogs named Angel and Sasha were left tied on a tiny metal balcony all night on Friday as the hurricane barreled toward Norfolk. The eye of the storm was only an hour away when PETA arrived at the apartment, where the woman who came to the door said that she wouldn't let the soaked, terrified dogs inside because they were "destructive." She signed them over to us, and we took them to a local open-admission shelter.
Early Sunday morning, a call came in from a fire department. A dog had wandered in, old and covered with mange, and collapsed on the floor. The firefighters gave him more love than he had probably ever had in his whole life. Mr. Jones, as the dog is now called, is now resting on a cushy bed at PETA's headquarters. Who knows what awful memories and worries he has as to what humans will do to him next.
These are a few of the "lucky" ones, although their trauma manifests itself in many ways--aggression, timidity, separation anxiety. Many other animals suffered and died in the hurricane because their humans couldn't be counted on to protect them. Leaving animals behind in an evacuation--especially if they are tied up, caged or confined outdoors--is no different from signing their death warrant. They can't escape rising floodwaters, fire, falling or flying debris and other dangers, and they are likely to starve to death if conditions prevent their owners from returning. The nightmare for them is in having been deserted and left helpless in the face of imminent danger.
It's crucial to plan ahead. Human shelters often refuse animals, so it's best to keep a list of places where you can stay with your animals during an evacuation, such as friends' homes, hotels and campgrounds. Have a disaster kit ready for each animal, including carriers and leashes, water and food bowls, enough food and medication for a week and a favorite toy or blanket. Have your animals microchipped, and put secure, legible ID tags on them. Make sure they are current on their rabies vaccinations, and carry documentation of this with you.
As those of us on the East Coast have experienced, it's not a question of if a disaster will strike, but when. Please, plan now so that your animals will be safe when an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, wildfire or whatever else Mother Nature dishes out comes your way.
Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of PETA, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org .