TERRE HAUTE —
Bumper stickers reading “I really do love my dog as much as you love your child” or “My cat is smarter than your honor student,” say a lot about how Americans view their pets.
The multi-billion-dollar pet products industry also tells a story. Americans are expected to spend more than $55 billion on their pets this year, a number that has steadily increased in the past 20 years, according to the American Pet Products Association.
Wabash Valley emergency responders have taken note of this trend, realizing that it’s not enough to rescue humans from disasters and leave pets to fend for themselves.
In the thick of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, “a lot of people wouldn’t evacuate without their pets,” said Dr. Dorene Hojnicki, director of the Vigo County Emergency Management Agency, which hosted a two-day training over the weekend showing emergency responders how best to handle pets in disasters.
“People love animals,” said Joan Willoughby of the Humane Society University of Gaithersburg, Md., who helped conduct the training sessions. “Animal issues are people issues,” she said.
Working with the U.S. Humane Society, the Vigo County EMA hosted the weekend seminar, which 32 local emergency responders attended, Hojnicki said. More than a dozen agencies were represented, including the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department, the Vigo County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), the American Red Cross, the 181st Intelligence Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard, the Terre Haute Humane Society and the Terre Haute Police Department.
“I love animals,” said Cheryl Burgess, a member of Vigo County CERT who attended the weekend classes. “This just provides me with more knowledge.”
With the exception of service animals, many emergency shelters have historically not permitted pets, Hojnicki said. Now, working with disaster relief agencies, plans are being devised for pet housing near disaster shelters, she said.
Participation in the two-day training was voluntary, and those attending the class paid a fee to help cover the cost of bringing two instructors to the area, Hojnicki noted. Donors also provided money for the weekend event, which took place at the Indiana Air National Guard Base in Terre Haute.
Apart from a concern for pets and pet owners, there is another good reason for Vigo County emergency responders to think of ways to deal with pets in a disaster. In 2006, Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which requires local communities to have emergency plans in place for handling pets to qualify for federal disaster money. The PETS Act came out of the experience with Hurricane Katrina, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University.
This weekend’s seminar was just a start for the training and planning necessary to have a good system in place for the complicated task of dealing with pets in a disaster, Hojnicki said, adding that even the best plan will likely need revision.
“Even if we think we’ve got a good plan, you know how it is in the real world,” she said.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@