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'Safe and sound:' Emergency management and pets subject of new book by ISU professor

Illinois State University
Ashley Farmer, right, and Sarah DeYoung with one of the Hurricane Harvey cats at an animal shelter.

In 2009, sociologist Leslie Irvine published "Filling the Ark: Animal Welfare in Disasters." Published in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Irvine's book explored the question of how natural disasters of all kinds impact domestic animals — and whether pets should be a part of emergency management.

Now, a recent book co-authored by Illinois State University associate professor Ashley Farmer aims to explore what's happened since Irvine's work was initially published — and where federal legislation on the matter falls short.

Farmer spoke to WGLT about the publication of the book, "All Creatures Safe and Sound: The Social Landscape of Pets in Disaster," in an interview lightly edited below.

Farmer: Hurricane Katrina was really a focal point in shifting how people thought about companion animals in disasters because we saw so many stories about people who either were forced to leave their pets behind, or whose pets got lost. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, there was just no consideration for how pets impacted human decisions. One of the things that my coauthor and I tired to highlight is that including pets in disaster planning can ultimately save human lives.

We do know that humans have refused to evacuate without their pets; people have admitted this in various surveys that have been conducted, or when asked about hypothetical situations during hurricanes, etc.

Were there any other pivotal moments following Hurricane Katrina that you and your coauthor researched?

Farmer: Hurricane Katrina... really led to the passage of what's called the PETS Act, or the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (of 2006). This was an act of Congress that was passed that said, essentially, municipalities cannot receive money for dealing with disasters, or emergency management money, if they don't include pets in their disaster planning. They have to have something that includes how pets will be accounted for in their disaster plans or their emergency management plans in order to receive federal funding.

One of the things that we highlight... is the implications of the PETS Act — what it was meant to do versus what it actually does. One of the things that we highlight is how the PETS Act really hasn't changed anything drastically. Municipalities can just include in the emergency emergency management plans, 'Hey, everyone's responsible for their own pets during a disaster,' and that (counts as) planning for pets in emergencies. But if you think about it, that's not really saying much, right? Our argument... is that the PETS Act could really go further in including pets and emergency management planning.

What's something that could be done further?

Farmer: There's a myth that has always gone around that the PETS Act... requires hotels and motels to let you bring your pets there to stay. Right. Even FEMA has pointed out that this is a myth: There's no requirement that hotels or motels allow you to bring pets. That's not what the PETS Act says. But we conclude that perhaps hotels and motels should like waive pet fees for people who are traveling to evacuate. That's something that could be incredibly helpful: If someone doesn't have the funds to pay these, sometimes very expensive pet fees in hotels, then that can be a problem.

There's probably also a privilege aspect to leaving with pets that can get in the way.

Farmer. Yes, a lot of people have to work all the way up until the time the disaster hits, especially in hurricanes. We talked to someone who was a waitress and she didn't have the option to just not go to work. She was required to be at work. The hurricane made landfall and by the time she did get off work, and they decided to finally close, she ended up having to walk back to her apartment in, like, waist deep water to get her dog. Wow. And so things like that, right? If you have to work and your job is not shutting down or letting you off, right, and you are in a position where you know, you need that money or you need that job. Right. You can't just call in that really hurts things as well.

We have an entire chapter in our book about addressing privilege when it comes to pets and disasters.

Do you have pets, and has this impacted how you think about them?

I have a dog and a cat — at the time, I also had a pet chinchilla who's sadly passed away since then. I've gotten those tags for my pets where you can just scan it and it gives you all sorts of information. Here in central Illinois, we're more likely to experience quick-onset disasters like flash flooding and tornadoes. Every time I hear a tornado siren, I'm like, 'Okay, where's the dog? Where's the cat?' Like, we gotta get to? So, definitely, it's on my mind.

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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