No one is immune from disaster, whether it's a massive natural calamity like the recent Northern California earthquakes or a smaller crisis such as a neighborhood gas leak.
If you were told to evacuate, what would you do with your pets? Would you take them with you, leave them in the house or turn them loose to fend for themselves?
"I would say absolutely no to turning them loose," said Eric Sakach of the Humane Society of the United States. "They're a danger to themselves and to relief workers. Your other options would depend on the circumstances."
Mr. Sakach is a specialist in disaster preparedness. At a recent conference for shelter personnel, he outlined the challenges that can face humane workers after disaster hits -- in one case, capturing a "pet" Bengal tiger -- and explained the best ways shelters can prepare staff and facilities. Working out of the society's West Coast regional office in Sacramento, Calif., Mr. Sakach has helped coordinate animal-rescue efforts after fires, floods, mud slides, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
"No tornadoes, though," he said, without regret. "You'd have to talk to our Midwest staff about that."
Mr. Sakach suggests taking pets into consideration when thinking through general family plans for emergencies.
"People should understand what kind of disasters are likely to happen in their area," he said. "Flood? Earthquake? I'm not suggesting anyone has a crystal ball, but everyone has an idea of what would be most likely to hit where they are.
"They should consider where they'll be if something happens. If they'll be in an emergency shelter, then the animals will probably have to be left in the home because most shelters won't accept pets.
"That's where considering the kind of disaster comes in," he said. "If a fire was sweeping toward my house, then obviously I'm going to take my pets out. But in other situations, it might be better to lock them in, open a bag of food, fill the bathtub with water and leave."
Mr. Sakach and others have a few specific suggestions for pet lovers wanting to plan ahead:
* Make sure your pet has a collar and ID. "I say make sure they've got a license," said Mr. Sakach. "I don't care how you feel about animal control, whether you disagree with the policies or ,, think it's over-regulation or what. No matter what you believe, that license is still the best ticket home for your pet. And in a time of crisis, bites (from loose, frightened pets) are a danger. If your pet's wearing a license tag and bites someone, then that person won't have to undergo treatment for rabies. Licensing your pet is a socially responsible thing to do."
* Keep leashes and carriers ready in case pets must be evacuated. "Get a cat carrier or a sturdy cardboard box or crate, and make sure you can get to it if you need to," said Mr. Sakach. "Don't stash it in the rafters."
* Prepare emergency supplies. Make sure your pets are covered as far as food and water goes. If your pet is on special medication, keep a healthy supply on hand at all times. Keep animal medical records up-to-date and file them with your important papers. "If your pet is small, in a carrier and if you have the health records handy, you have a better chance of keeping it with you in an emergency shelter," Mr. Sakach said.
* Become familiar with basic emergency care for pets. "Few people realize that during a severe disaster, veterinarians can be pressed into service treating human casualties," said Mr. Sakach. "In any case, it would be a good idea to take a course on first aid for pets. At least do some reading up on the subject."
Mr. Sakach has put together a packet to help individuals and shelters prepare for disaster. He will send it free to anyone who sends an 8 1/2 -by-11-inch envelope with two stamps on it to the West Coast Regional Office of the Humane Society of the United States, P.O. Box 417220, Sacramento, Calif. 95841-7220. "If someone wants us to send the packet to their local shelter, drop
us a note and we'll take care of it," he said.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.