Of the many heartbreaking stories that emerged from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some of the most indelible involved pets. Some were left behind or ran away in fear during the chaos of the storm. Others were forcibly separated from their families when their owners boarded rescue vehicles or entered shelters. In New Orleans alone, thousands of lost animals roamed the streets once the floodwaters subsided.
In disaster situations, the deep connection between humans and animals can impact survival. Without adequate planning or preparation, decisions about what to do with a family pet during an emergency can turn into a matter of life and death.
“Even prior to Hurricane Katrina, owning a pet was known to be the biggest factor in failing to evacuate,” says Melissa Hunt, the associate director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences.
After the hurricane, Hunt studied the psychological effects that losing a pet had on Katrina victims, a topic that quickly turned into a national political issue. In October 2006, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act was signed into law, requiring states to account for pets in their human evacuation plans in order to receive federal disaster assistance. The act was proposed less than a month after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.
In light of this policy, Hunt, along with undergraduates Nick Rohrbaugh and Kelsey Bogue, is once again investigating the role pet ownership plays in disasters.
The research team is currently conducting an online survey of people who lived in a mandatory evacuation area during Hurricane Irene. They are encouraging both pet owners and non-pet owners to participate, and to spread word of the study through its Facebook page.
“In our earlier study, we saw that some people were more distraught over losing a pet than they were over losing their homes,” says Hunt. “Understanding this relationship better could help us save both human and animal lives.”
Originally published on January 19, 2012