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BERNSTEIN: Saving people - and their pets

Nonhuman family members are being left behind in Japan

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Amid all the drama in the Japanese nuclear cri- sis, a problem is emerging for evacuating American families whose breadwinners work for the U.S. military or federal government. Even though U.S. policy allows pets to be evacuated, some are being told they must leave Fido behind. In other cases, the definition of a pet or other red tape is getting in the way - kitties are government-approved pets, bunnies are not. In some cases, families have been told pets left behind will be euthanized.

@-Text.rag:Once again, as witnessed during Hurricane Katrina, a forced choice to leave without a family member or stay in harm's way has further traumatized those already suffering through the violence of an earthquake, a tsunami and the fear of radiation poisoning. This is truly disturbing and contrary to lessons learned from earlier disasters.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Los Angeles' elite disaster response team has responded to fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods from Los Angeles to, most recently, Sri Lanka. Despite differences in the causes of these disasters, the effects are the same: The system for evacuating and/or rescuing the elderly, the disabled, the ill and the animals are often lacking or nonexistent. Furthermore, the experience of the victims is similar in every case as time is of the essence, and difficult choices must be made under stressful, heartbreaking and life-threatening conditions.

Despite variations in prioritizing which family treasures to grab during an evacuation, the same thing is always atop the list - the dog, cat, bird, rabbit or pocket pet. Even to people fleeing for their lives, pets are not mere possessions but rather family members. Saving them is not "discretionary." Disaster preparedness never will be complete until all the vulnerable populations are planned for and accommodated.

This truth was demonstrated repeatedly when the world watched in horror as people chose to drown rather than abandon their pets in New Orleans. There are those who have run into fire-consumed houses to rescue their animals and many who have refused to stay in temporary shelters where pets were prohibited.

Consequently, FEMA added pet evacuation strategies to their checklists and states such as California passed laws mandating that pets be considered in disaster planning. Yet allowing transport of pets on government flights from Japan is still discretionary and fraught with conditions. For example, some "official" documents now being circulated specify only two pets, (how does one choose if there are three?), and seemingly, only dogs and cats will be saved. The 45-year-old African Grey parrot that has been with the family for as many years is out of luck. And there is limited space for even acceptable pets and the wait to evacuate families with them can be much longer than families with none. How many extra days of radiation should one have to endure simply because of a dog?

And, if you can believe it, amid crisis, American evacuees are being told to arrange veterinary appointments to assure that vaccinations and other health issues are taken care of before departure.

The untenable result is that our government is asking families to choose to abandon all or some of their pets as a condition of being rescued quickly. Parents still may be forced to explain to a child why his puppy or guinea pig can't come on the rescue plane, a situation that often causes children to wonder if they will be left behind should they become inconvenient. Furthermore, forcing such choices under such circumstances could prolong the ordeal long after the disaster is over and the property is replaced.

President Obama: As commander in chief, please mandate that a plan to accommodate pets in a swift and efficient manner be implemented and not subject to discretion and arbitrary conditions. Please also mandate that military families be educated in advance of deployment as to evacuation procedures so they are prepared. In other words, if two pets is the maximum for emergency transport, families won't have three or four. Lastly, if you are going to rescue people, do it without torturing them in the process. Send more transport vehicles, crate the small pets, muzzle the large ones and let's get it done.

Madeline Bernstein is president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Los Angeles.

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