June was National Pet Preparedness Month, and that fact combined with the consequences of the Dog Head Fire that tore through nearly 20,000 acres of New Mexico landscape should raise alarms for all people with companion animals.
What will you do if your or your neighbor’s house catches on fire? Do you have a plan for a prolonged power outage during these peak temperatures? If you have to make the decision to evacuate your home, for whatever reason, do you have a plan to care for, protect and save your animals?
“First responders may be able to assist people with a dog or cat in an immediate rescue operation, but it’s up to each family to evacuate their own animals,” said Sharon Jonas, program manager with Animal Protection of New Mexico and a trained animal disaster responder.
During the recent Dog Head Fire that devastated families in and near the Monzano Mountains, the East Mountain Community Emergency Response Team set up an emergency shelter. There the group cared for 138 goats, 115 cattle, 45 dogs, 15 horses, 12 cats, nine chickens, five sheep, five llamas, one mule and one duck.
“With so many communities in New Mexico being either semi-rural or agricultural, combined with long-term drought-affected terrain, the consideration for a disaster should be more about when it happens than if,” said Jonas, who has participated in numerous trainings with FEMA, the American Red Cross and the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. She volunteered in Baton Rouge, La., after Hurricane Katrina, and most recently, assisted with the CERT emergency animal shelter in Estancia during the Dog Head Fire.
Creating a disaster plan to protect yourself, your family and your companion animals takes a multilayer approach. Start with creating an emergency kit, one that includes copies of veterinary records, medications, leashes, carriers, food, water bowls, bedding, towels, small litter box, cat litter and scooper, pet first aid and any comfort items. Important note: Keep vaccinations up to date, as your animals will be around others in an emergency shelter.
Store your emergency kit in an accessible, central location, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Create a checklist or a binder with all important information, clearly labeled. Now you’re ready to go, but where do you go and what do you do?
APNM’s deputy director, Daniel Abram, had to evacuate his small farm during the Dog Head Fire. Donkeys, cats, dogs, pigs and chickens needed swift and safe housing. “I was that person who said to himself and others, ‘Yeah, I should really make a fire plan,’ ” Abram said. “I am now that person telling others to do it. Do it today. I am not kidding. When it is upon you, it is terrifying.”
Knowing when to leave and where to go can be the toughest part of an evacuation. You’ll constantly second guess your decisions. To avoid these setbacks, Jonas recommended creating an evacuation plan, one that includes communicating with your friends, family, veterinarian and boarding facility and practice the plan several times. Get children involved, talk to your neighbors, know how to search for lost animals and map out your surroundings so that you can make the best possible choices for your animals when an emergency drives you out of your home. Practicing your evacuation plan will help families remain calm during an emergency and think clearly if unforeseen obstacles arise.
“In most situations, homeowners are not allowed to go back to their property once they’ve left an evacuated area, and primary access roads may be closed,” Jonas said.
“Plus,” she said, “animals don’t like change and get distressed easily. If they’ve had a chance to practice being in crates and cars or trailers, it will make it a lot easier for both people and their animals when it’s time to evacuate.”
It’s heart wrenching even to think about losing our animals when disaster strikes. You can get specific details on disaster prep for animals at www.apnm.org/safety.
Sara Palmer is the communications director for Animal Protection of New Mexico, the premier animal protection nonprofit in New Mexico, advocating for animals by effecting systemic change and working towards the humane treatment of all animals since 1979.