Preparing For The Big One… by Ed Boks

On Wednesday, January 17th, we all remembered the 13th anniversary of the devastating Northridge 6.7 earthquake.

This anniversary provided a time for reflection of the leadership role LA Animal Services played in rescuing and returning animals to their frantic owners during those frightful days. Over 650 dogs were rescued in the days immediately following the quake and over 400 were safely returned to their owners. For the remaining animals, Animal Services conducted a huge Fees Waived Adoptathon on Feb.12, 2002, to ensure every animal rescued during the disaster was given every opportunity to find a loving home. On that day alone, over 300 animals were adopted.

As we prepare for future emergencies, especially “the big one” (which experts suggest will be like 25 Northridge quakes lined up end to end), it is important to recognize that an estimated 75 to 80% of all Angelinos own pets, and that studies have found that 86% of all pet owners are willing to risk their lives to save their pet’s life.

That was certainly borne out during the Katrina disaster. 50% of the people who refused to evacuate (even at gun point) said it was because they would not leave their pets behind. The over 50,000 pets left behind in New Orleans after Katrina prompted President Bush and the Congress to enact a law late last year requiring states to include pets in disaster relief plans or risk losing federal funding if pets are not included.

During last year’s LA City Emergency Management Workshop I heard someone ask, “How often does something have to happen to you before it occurs to you?”

This question suddenly reminded me of where I was on 9/11 2001. I was at an HSUS Conference in Washington DC, just a block from the Pentagon. I was staying at the Crystal Hotel and was there in my capacity as Executive Director of Maricopa County’s Animal Care & Control Program.

It wasn’t long after the attack that the hotel was filled with all the brass from the Pentagon who had hastily decided to set up their Incident Command Post in the hotel lobby. As you can imagine, everyone was reeling from the images of the World Trade Centers on TV and the smoke from the Pentagon wafting through the building.

I found myself talking to a colonel who understandably appeared to be in shock. Over the next few minutes I felt comfortable enough to ask him this question: “Understanding the fact that the Pentagon is the central location for all strategic military thinking, you must have had a contingency plan for an attack on the Pentagon itself. What was the plan for an attack like this?”

He looked at me for a few moments before saying, “Yes, we did have an emergency plan for an attack like this. Everyone in the building was to meet in the hall where the airplane struck.” There was no plan B. When Plan A was no longer an option, everyone ran to the closest shelter, the Crystal Hotel.

Less than two years later I was the executive director of New York City’s Animal Care & Control. My office was one block from Ground Zero. It was while I was in New York City that I learned of the heroic and largely unrecognized work done by the animal care and control officers of that department, along with the City’s Urban Park Rangers, on 9/11.

In the days following 9/11, Animal Care & Control Officers and Urban Park Rangers rescued over 1200 pets from the surrounding residential buildings over the objections of the Fire and Police Chiefs who felt the buildings were unsafe. These brave officers climbed 30 story buildings in the dark and smoke, without air conditioning or electricity. They went from apartment to apartment not knowing if the buildings they were in would stand or fall. They wore “moon suits” with respirators so they could breath. Within three days they rescued 1200 animals and within two weeks they had returned every animal to its rightful owner.

Los Angeles Animal Services and Animal Care & Control of New York City both serve as models for massive pet evacuations and safely returning animals to their owners, as contrasted with what happened after Katrina. To be sure, Katrina was a disaster of much larger geographic scope than either the Northridge quake or the World Trade Center disaster. However, there is one troubling similarity between 9/11 and Katrina, and that is how so many of the national animal welfare organizations capitalized on the disaster. They raised millions of dollars but, according to independent animal rescuers who aided in efforts to save animals in the aftermath, did much less than they probably could have to actually rescue and return pets to their owners.

I know that New York City Animal Care & Control, the agency that did the lion’s share of saving animals’ lives during the 9/11 tragedy, received nothing from the millions of dollars raised by the organizations who ostensibly raised these monies to alleviate the suffering of the animals in the disaster. In the future, local animal care agencies and private sector animal welfare groups should work together to create more effective public-private partnerships and generate improved outcomes for these animals who find themselves in desperate straits.

Most communities have an animal control agency that is equipped and trained to handle such emergencies (or they are working on a plan to do so). When deciding who should take the lead in rescuing and RETURNING animals in a disaster, local communities should rely on the agency that provides this expertise every day of the year, their local animal control department.

In Los Angeles, every day is a human-made disaster in terms of numbers when it comes to rescuing and returning lost, homeless, and displaced pets: LA Animal Services routinely receives on average 125 animals a day. Animal Services is diligently planning and preparing to respond to a variety of human-made and natural disasters. Our goal is to make LA the safest City for animals in the United States even in times of disasters.

Animal Services is responsible for protecting and promoting the health, safety and welfare of animals and people in the city of Los Angeles. The department’s Emergency Preparedness Division leads and coordinates preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation efforts relating to natural and manmade disasters that affect the health and safety of pets and wildlife in the city.

Animal Services takes seriously its responsibility to educate the public in preparing their pets for disasters, to ensure pets are included in the City’s evacuation plan, to coordinate animal rescue efforts, to establish plans for setting up emergency shelters for homeless pets, and to coordinate the training of shelter and field staff in the incident command system that’s used in disaster response.

LA Animal Services coordinates all interagency animal-related responses in the City’s emergency operations center during a time of disaster. If you belong to an LA City-based organization and you are interested in learning more about this important topic, please contact LA Animal Services at 213.482.9556 to schedule a presentation on disaster planning for pets.

Together we can develop a comprehensive “safety net” for all the members of our family, including our companion animals.