It has been a year since Hurricane Sandy barreled into the East Coast leaving countless victims in her wake. Sadly, thousands of residents are still recovering from the storm as they rebuild their lives and homes. Animal lovers may find it difficult to forget the tragic stories of flooded laboratories and thousands of research animals who suffered a horrible fate, drowning in their cages, following Hurricane Sandy. Sadly, that wasn’t the first time in recent years that a natural disaster had decimated animal facilities. When Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Tulane and Louisiana State University also did not protect their animals in labs from this foreseeable and terrible fate. The clean up included pulling their lifeless bodies from flooded cages. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison devastated several local universities who kept primates and hundreds of other animals for research. They also perished in the storm because there was no evacuation plan in place.
While we hope that some good would come of these hard-learned lessons, policymakers do not seem to have gotten the message. Two months into this year’s hurricane season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shelved a federal rule that would require facilities regulated by the Animal Welfare Act to plan for disaster situations. The rule would compel facilities to prepare for potential emergencies that could affect the animals in their care. Unfortunately, USDA pulled the rule two days before it was to go into effect.
The ASPCA responders who experienced Sandy and Katrina—as well as numerous other disasters — know that if pet owners and facilities with animals prepare for emergencies, more lives will be saved and responders can better focus their relief efforts when disaster strikes. The horrors of these events have not faded from memory: dogs chained in yards and left to drown; animals starving to death after evacuations dragged on and on; animals wandering the streets malnourished, dehydrated, and frightened. Why would the USDA waver on a rule that could save lives at such a small cost? It is simply common sense to ensure that any facility housing animals has some plan in place for inevitable storms and disasters.
Today, the National Animal Rescue & Sheltering Coalition (NARSC), of which ASPCA is a member, sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to implement the disaster contingency plan rule. NARSC is the largest collective of experienced, qualified animal rescue and sheltering management professionals in the country. NARSC works with local, state, and federal entities to mobilize emergency veterinary clinics, conduct search and rescue, operate and stock animal supply distribution centers, perform animal transports, and provide emergency boarding—at virtually no cost to taxpayers.
The letter states, “As professional organizations committed to disaster planning and response, we see USDA’s equivocation as imprudent and a failure to protect animals under its jurisdiction... USDA should not allow entities regulated under the AWA to avail themselves of public and private disaster relief resources as the first line of defense during emergencies without requiring them to make a reasonable effort to prepare for the likelihood of disaster.”
Asking those who use animals commercially to demonstrate a level of readiness to protect animals in their custody is fair and reasonable. The USDA should institute the disaster preparedness rule before another disaster strikes to protect the health and welfare of animals and the safety of the public.
To learn more about the ASPCA and for lifesaving disaster preparedness tips, please visit www.aspca.org.