Many Florida residents were unprepared when catastrophic hurricane Irma appeared over the Atlantic. Extensive media coverage and government warnings had many people taking action early, but long term preparedness plans were apparently not in place for families and pets alike. Store shelves were emptied in many places and gas stations ran out of fuel. Pets were abandoned in alarming numbers, tied up to trees, and left pinned up in flood risk areas. Many pet owners gave up ownership and turned their cats and dogs in to nearby shelters.
The influx of abandoned pets has spurred south Florida authorities to instate felony charges for owners who left their pets behind. Emergency preparedness plans must take into consideration all living creatures under one’s care. Just days before Hurricane Irma made landfall, Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control had rescued roughly 40 dogs that were abandoned as residents sought shelter. Director Dianne Sauve said “there is absolutely no excuse” for abandoning a pet, even in the days leading up to a hurricane. Many of the recovered animals were found tied up to trees and locked up in pens, unable to escape. This poses dangers to the pet and the public, says the Florida Department of Health. With floods imminent, chained animals become tortured animals.
Authorities in Florida have pledged to crack down on pet abandonment. If they can identify owners, they could be charged with felony animal cruelty charges. This announcement will likely cause further problems. Many pet owners won’t search for or claim their animals if they know that they are going to be charged with a felony. Animals that were recovered by authorities may be left in the custody of the shelters, forever detached from their original owners.
Authorities say that the number of abandonments was higher during this storm than previous storms. Disappointed shelter director Dianne Sauve says the goal of the shelters is to keep families and pets together. She iterated that there are two pet-friendly shelters in Palm Beach County that many people were unaware of. The shelter took in another 40 cats and dogs that were willingly turned in and left there by their owners. The owners won’t get the pets back. In Palm Beach County, when an owner willingly gives up their pet, they lose ownership for good. It will also be more difficult for the owner to adopt again in the future.
After the hurricane passes, pet owners are warned not to let their animals roam. Confused pets are more prone to bite and attack humans, especially during times when they are more likely to be provoked. Debris also poses a danger to animals. Animal shelters see an uptick in wounded animals immediately following a storm and may not be able to respond to all cases at once. Displaced wildlife, such as alligators, quickly become a threat to pets, too.
While felony charges are a bit extreme in situations like this, there is an apparent need for better preparedness plans for families and pets alike. This starts with communities becoming more aware of the impact of regional threats and understanding what is most important to sustain life during a crisis situation.