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Hurricanes and other natural disasters can imperil pets just as they can endanger people.
can draw a line from their current field of study to something in their
past that first lit the spark – an engineer who had a knack for fixing
things, an economics professor who was always good with numbers.
For Sarah DeYoung, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice and a core faculty member in the University of
Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, that moment came at a very early age and
developed into a very specific area of research that mirrored her
Her family lived near a landfill in western North Carolina where
people would dump off animals that they no longer wanted, leaving them
stranded at the end of a dirt road.
“My parents would take the cats or dogs and bring them to the
shelter. It kind of became almost routine for us. So animal welfare has
always been a part of my life,” DeYoung said.
Over the years she became a full-blown animal lover, taking part in
animal advocacy efforts like spay and neuter events and had many pets of
But it wasn’t until DeYoung was working on her postdoc at UD with
Ashley Farmer, then a graduate student, that it all came together.
“We were both analyzing some open-ended hurricane data from a
project,” DeYoung said. “At the end of the survey, a lot of the
respondents were saying, ‘One thing you forgot to ask me about was my
pets.’ There were questions about health and income and all of these
other factors, but a lot of people were indicating that their decisions
about the hurricane in that particular research setting were led by
their animals. We thought that was really interesting. We kind of kept
it in the back of our mind. And then when Hurricane Irma and Harvey
happened, we were both faculty members by then and we launched our
That research gets a comprehensive look in All Creatures Safe and Sound: The Social Landscape of Pets in Disasters, a book co-authored by DeYoung and Farmer (now a professor at Illinois State University) and published in June 2021.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
A new book examines how pets are managed during disasters and provides tips for keeping them safe.
The book is the result of years of
research that was launched by a National Science Foundation grant that
allowed DeYoung and Farmer to deploy and gather data for seven different
major disasters in the United States from 2017 through 2019. Those
disasters included multiple hurricanes, a Hawaii lava flow, multiple
wildfires in California and the geographic range spanning from the
Carolinas to Florida and Texas and California and Hawaii.
DeYoung recently answered a few questions about the book and her study of pet management during disasters.
Q: What was the impetus for the book?
DeYoung: During Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, my
co-author, Ashley Farmer, and I were watching and reading a lot of news
stories about people who either purposefully or inadvertently left their
animals behind in floodwaters. There were dogs tied to trees or
lampposts or just left in floodwaters. Even though the Pets Act [which
authorized FEMA to provide rescue, care, shelter and essential needs for
individuals with household pets and service animals] was passed in
2006, after Hurricane Katrina, this still remained a very visible and
urgent problem. We decided to write a grant proposal to the National
Science Foundation to collect additional data.
Q: For many humans, pets are practically on the same level with
children and a family. It seems odd that we would even need plans for
pet management during a disaster. Why do you think there’s this blind
DeYoung: A lot of people do view pets as family, but there is,
of course, a variation in the levels of attachment and bonding that
people have with companion animals, and that varies from household to
household. There's also a disconnect because emergency managers or other
decision makers that are planning for and responding to disasters don't
always necessarily view pets as essential or members of the household.
It's really up to the people in charge of that particular disaster or
sheltering scenario to make sure that there are arrangements for
evacuation and sheltering of people with companion animals.
Q: How would pet evacuation and management differ during a fire or hurricane or an earthquake?
DeYoung: That has a lot to do with the timing of the event and
how quickly the disaster arrives in a community, as it would with a
wildfire. Obviously, the decision making has to be compressed into a
very short timeframe. People have minutes or even just a matter of
seconds to decide how they're going to evacuate and what they're going
to bring with them. And, in a hurricane, people usually have sometimes
up to a week of advance notice, because of meteorological models and
forecasting. But there are still cases where, even in a hurricane,
someone didn't realize that their neighborhood was in a flood zone. And
so they would go to work, or they would go to a friend's house, and
while they were away, the flooding would happen. And unfortunately,
there were instances in which an animal wouldn’t make it. Of course, the
owner of the animal would be devastated in those cases. So the speed of
onset as well as the flood zone was really important.
Q: What was something that surprised you while you were doing the field work for this book?
DeYoung: Something that surprised me was the degree and the
extent to which people go to engage in heroic acts to save animals.
Sometimes even animals that aren't their own. People will stay behind in
a hurricane to feed a colony of feral or wild cats, or sometimes people
will rescue their neighbor's dogs during flooding. There were instances
of people spending hours in the burn zone after the major wildfires to
trap cats that were displaced from their neighborhoods. A lot of people
engaged in heroic activities, which shouldn't be surprising because we
know that people tend to help each other in disasters and crisis events,
but it was still rather moving for us to document and to observe.
Q: What are some of the things people can do before a disaster to
get prepared and mitigate the risks to themselves and their pets?
DeYoung: I think it's really important for people to be aware
of how complicated it can be, and try to do everything they can to
increase the chance of reunification. Things like microchipping, having a
current photo of the animal or having things that you would need for
evacuation in a very obvious spot — cat carriers in a closet by the
door, or leashes and dog kennels in a very accessible place, like next
to the car in the garage so that when the evacuation happens it is
nearby. This way, you’re not asking yourself, ‘Where did I put those
things?’ That actually ended up being a really big problem that we saw
time and time again.
Q: Obviously, having lodging options that will allow pets is
crucial to the safety and survival of both owner and pet. Is there
anything that can encourage these businesses to allow pets when a
DeYoung: We saw a lot of rumors on social media, during every
disaster. There would be false information spread that shelters or
hotels have to accept pets. And that's simply not the case. But we do
recommend that it would be good for hotel PR to temporarily waive some
of their restrictions during an emergency scenario. We believe it will
be better for their business. We realize that there are additional costs
associated with that, such as cleaning. But we feel that the benefit
far outweighs any losses incurred. Because, again, it's great for public
relations for businesses that decide to waive the pet fees or to loosen
the restrictions during mandatory evacuation or disaster event. There
should be more incentives for renters or landlords specifically to allow
renters to bring pets or to change those restrictions in an area or a
state that's had a major disaster. Long-term housing recovery was a
really big issue in Hawaii and California, because a lot of the
properties available for renters after disasters have very specific pet
restrictions. That prevented people from finding housing and then they
had to surrender the animal after the disaster.
Q: What did you find in your research related to the positive role of social media in animal rescue efforts?
DeYoung: In the book we talk about how social media really
empowers people to organize. So we met a group of women in Hawaii, it
was just four or five women who came together and organized an entire
mass response and rescue operation, helping the 2,000 families that
evacuated from the Leilani estates after the lava flow. And they helped
mobilize resources for all of the animals that needed placement or
needed fencing for goats, chickens, cows, horses, cats and dogs, etc.
And social media was their main way of coordinating and mobilizing, and
organizing and collaborating to get the resources where they needed to
be and linking up people who had needs. Social media can be a powerful
tool in that way. Overall, we saw social media being used by volunteers
and organizations for providing information, collaborating and
coordinating. There was a hurricane in North Carolina where one animal
rescue organization put out a call for people to foster dogs before the
hurricane made landfall. A record number of people and families showed
up to foster dogs over the weekend. A lot of those dogs that were
fostered ended up being permanently adopted. That was a social media
initiative. A lot of the organizations that we interviewed used the
power of social media to make lives better for pets.
Q: How does privilege and power play into this? Does socioeconomic status have any impact on how people respond?
DeYoung: We connect the way in which pets are managed in
disasters to the well-being of the people in those communities. If
someone doesn't have the tangible resources to evacuate and pay for a
hotel for two to three nights, then they're more likely to sleep in
their car with the cat or the dog, and the cat and the dog can overheat
in the car, just like a human can overheat in the car. We saw a lot of
that after Hurricane Irma: people sleeping in their cars, because they
couldn't bring their pets to a hotel. There were people who had jobs as
food service workers that weren't allowed to leave work until their
shift was over. By the time that they got home, their dog was in
floodwater. Luckily, they made it in time, but they had to walk through
waist-high floodwater to get to their dog.
The ways that humans can be supported through better social policies,
and making sure that people have access to resources they need to
thrive, can also improve the lives of animals.
Pet overpopulation is also a really big issue in some communities, so
when the disaster happens the shelters are more likely to be at full
capacity. That can increase rates of euthanasia. This is why the
pre-disaster education and outreach, and mobilizing resources for spay
and neuter and aggressive outreach campaigns, are important before the
disaster happens instead of waiting until after it hits. It’s thinking
strategically about the best way to get those resources to folks and to
animals that need it.
There are some issues with race and gender in disasters. We saw a lot
of things unfold in terms of more power being allocated to people in
animal rescue, which is very white female dominated, and how that
impacts the decisions that people make about reunification, resources,
and outreach. Another theme we identified was that wealthier households
and communities have more time and social connections to find their
animals after disasters.
Q: As an animal lover, seeing these tragedies again and again has to be very difficult.
DeYoung: You’re right and, unfortunately, a lot of the
disasters that we deployed for had a lot of animal losses. One example
was the campfire of 2018 in Paradise, California. A lot of the
respondents that we interviewed also were impacted by observed human
fatalities. That was also difficult to process. It became a part of our
debriefing. Our training taught us that if we had students on the field
work with us, emotional well being and reflexivity and researcher
training and some of the issues that we encounter. That definitely
taught me a lot as a researcher, how to handle that, and how to mentor
my students when we came across those sorts of issues. But we're
disaster researchers. It's part of what we know to be true. And the
landscape of human suffering, and animal suffering, they're also linked.
A lot of the more challenging stories that we heard were luckily
sometimes balanced with happy endings, or hopeful stories. So we tried
to keep that in mind and maintain that perspective that, while we heard a
lot of horrible stories, we heard a lot of really inspiring and moving
stories as well.
Here are some tips for people with companion animals to keep in mind
as we approach hurricane and wildfire season, according to DeYoung.
1) Make sure the supplies you would need for evacuating with your pet
are ready now. If you wait until a hurricane is approaching to get a
cat carrier or other supplies, other people may be doing the same thing
and stores might not have the supplies you need. Stock up early, even if
it means saving small supplies over time (i.e. buying extra cans of cat
or dog food with each regular grocery trip to put in your hurricane
2) Have a current picture of your pets on your phone or on a cloud
file. When people are separated from their animals in disasters, an
updated photo increases the chances of being reunited. Microchip your
pets and make sure that the microchip registration information is up to
3) If you must evacuate, do not assume that you will be able to
return to retrieve your animals. This means you should make every effort
to evacuate with your animals. Many people unfortunately assume that
they will be able to retrieve their pets later and this is often not the
Article by Peter Bothum; photos by iStock and courtesy of Sarah DeYoung
Published June 10, 2021