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Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, each born in the Atlantic in late summer, upended the lives of millions of people and animals. The scouring winds and unstoppable storm surges these hurricanes unleashed tested not just the resilience of the people of Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but also their survival skills. Two of the storms also flattened other parts of the Caribbean, including the British Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, in Mexico, earthquakes shook big parts of the country, crushing hundreds of people and animals in the rubble of fallen structures.
It almost seemed like a series of primal screams from the Earth, reminding our species of the ferocious power of nature and the vulnerability of our settlements, structures and support systems.
Especially in the islands, the drama and devastation are still unfolding. But it could have been even worse. After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, The HSUS and other animal welfare groups rescued thousands of animals in Louisiana and Mississippi. But we also saw firsthand how the lack of options for pets in disasters resulted in families becoming separated, or in people opting to remain in dangerous situations rather than leave a beloved friend behind. In Katrina’s wake, we urged Congress to require government agencies to do better when it comes to the needs of animals, so that people impacted by disasters would never again feel they had to choose between their own safety and a loved one. In 2006, the House and Senate, and then-President George W. Bush, enacted the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which requires state and local governments wanting to qualify for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to include animals in their disaster plans.
The impact of the PETS Act was tangible when the nation confronted the recent series of storms. The HSUS, local humane organizations and other groups helping animals didn’t face the disasters alone. The Coast Guard, the National Guard, state governments and many other first responders helped. Coast Guard helicopters ferried people and animals from rooftops and other perilous circumstances. Responders worked with us to drop hay for stranded cattle and horses. Emergency shelters and local businesses opened their doors to people and pets.
With their help, we dove in, doing search-and-rescue (including in Mexico, where our Humane Society International teams rescued or treated more than 5,000 animals). We transported hundreds of homeless animals from Texas and Florida and other affected areas to our network of emergency placement partners. With a special assist from St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in New Jersey and other shelters throughout the country, we’re working to transport homeless animals from Puerto Rico shelters to mainland humane organizations.
While so many in our movement immerse themselves in these responses, we also have an enormous set of other responsibilities to pursue. It is axiomatic that many crises that affect animals are human-made: factory farms jam millions of animals into systems of extreme confinement, puppy mills deny dogs a loving touch, trophy hunts torment animals for a head or hide. These problems are disasters in their own right, and they demand our attention.
Our movement has an immense set of challenges to confront, responding to the worst of what nature and human greed and custom throw at animals. While animal rescue is essential to help animals in crisis, preparedness, zero tolerance for cruelty and creative ways of running our government and businesses provide the best pathway for helping the greatest number of animals and not putting them in jeopardy in the first place.
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