Bill in Congress will require puppy mills, roadside zoos and other businesses to have emergency plans to protect animals during disasters
By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
Weather-related disasters such as floods and wildfires are occurring more frequently and with increasing intensity across the United States. While there is a federal law that requires state and local authorities to consider household pets and service animals in their disaster contingency plans, it doesn’t address hundreds of thousands of animals held in American businesses, institutions and enterprises, specifically those in puppy mills, research facilities, zoos, circuses and aquariums regulated under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress today will remedy that by requiring all such enterprises to create emergency response plans for the animals in their care, so that they are not simply abandoned when disaster strikes.
The Providing Emergency Plans for Animals at Risk of Emerging Disasters (PREPARED) Act, H.R. 1042, is championed by Reps. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and Peter King, R-N.Y. It would require facilities that are regulated under the AWA to submit annual plans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that identify emergency situations, including natural disasters, power outages and animal escapes, and outline specific tasks to respond to these emergencies. Plans need to include instructions for evacuating the animals, shelter-in-place, provision of backup food and water, sanitation, ventilation, bedding and veterinary care.
In 2001, more than 34,400 animals, including 78 monkeys, 35 dogs and 300 rabbits, died when Tropical Storm Allison flooded the University of Texas Medical Center. That facility, located along one of Houston’s largest bayous, housed more than half of its research animals underground. Sadly, the same mistake was repeated when New York University began construction on a research building one year later and located the animals in the basement; thousands of mice drowned there from Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge in 2012.
In 2006, with our urging, Congress enacted the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, after an estimated 600,000 animals were abandoned during Hurricane Katrina. Some people refused to evacuate and lost their lives because they couldn’t bear to abandon their pets. The PETS Act required state and local authorities to take into account — and to plan for — the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals before, during and after a disaster, but it did not cover commercially owned animals.
The PREPARED Act would do more than simply benefit animals. It would also reduce the burden on first responders, the local community and nongovernmental entities involved with rescue efforts after a disaster. For example, in 2008, the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus in Kansas ignored four days of severe tornado warnings by the National Weather Service to keep two elephants outside, giving rides to the public. When a tornado hit, equipment fell on one of the animals. A handler was thrown from an elephant and injured, and the traumatized animals bolted and were loose for hours.
The 2014 Farm Bill directed the USDA to create an exemption from the AWA for people with only a few non-dangerous animals, noting that this would enable the agency to swiftly adopt a requirement for emergency contingency plans by AWA-regulated facilities. That exemption was finalized in June last year, so there is no reason for further delay on requiring the emergency plans.
We know firsthand the difficulties of providing care for thousands of animals after a significant disaster. Each year, the HSUS Animal Rescue Team spends hundreds of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to assist with rescuing and caring for animals during hurricane season and in the aftermath of other catastrophes, natural and manmade. Our four animal care centers, operated by our affiliates the Fund for Animals and the South Florida Wildlife Center, all have disaster plans in place. The PREPARED Act is a win-win for everyone: by creating contingency plans for the animals in their care, businesses can safeguard their investments, reassure the public and other stakeholders that they are protecting the animals in their care, and prevent catastrophic outcomes for dependent animals. Congress should enact this commonsense reform quickly.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund