The majority of Americans consider their pets to be part of their families. So when disasters strike, they would no more leave Fido or Fluffy behind than they would a son or daughter. The City of Cullman recognized this and took action to protect pets and their owners during severe weather.
Judging from the comments online to the story in The Times this week, the transformation of a pet-friendly shelter is a welcome one indeed. When the worst someone can say about a government action is “it’s about time,” it’s a pretty clear indicator it was the right thing to do.
Chief Kenny Culpepper said they considered building a separate shelter for pets, but the cost of meeting tornado-safe standards was too great to make it a feasible solution.
Instead, the police department converted one of the five tubes in the tornado shelter at Sportsman Lake Park into a shelter that will accommodate dogs, cats and their owners. The pet-friendly shelter is not accessible by the other tubes, protecting anyone with allergies from fur and dander. The shelter will accommodate 90 people and their pets, provided they are smaller dogs and cats. There is only space for two large dogs and one medium-sized dog. Owners need to bring their own carriers.
The city should be commended for identifying a barrier to people seeking shelter and finding a solution to overcome it. Time and again in emergency situations such as floods, hurricanes and tornados, pet owners say they didn’t want to leave for safer shelter if it meant abandoning their animals. The city found a solution that allows people to be safe with their furry family members.
It’s something other agencies should be looking at as well. Pet ownership, while providing emotional, physical and social rewards, can also be a barrier to obtaining needed services.
Homeless shelters, for example, don’t allow pets, and even when temperatures drop below freezing, some people will choose to stay out in the cold rather than leave their animal companion.
Women seeking sanctuary from abuse are also sometimes loath to leave a beloved pet behind. Not only can their pets become targets of angry abusers, animal companionship also provides emotional support during a very emotionally fraught time.
Opening the doors to people and animals wholesale is not the answer either. Human allergies to animals is a concern, and there are also concerns for the animals, such as behavioral issues and unvaccinated pets coming in contact with diseases.
There are some examples across the nation for addressing these issues - providing animal crates in homeless shelters, creating a network of people willing to foster dogs or cats for a period of a few months so owners know their pets are at least safe - but the important thing is to talk about the barriers and identify solutions.
No solution is going to be 100 percent perfect, but creating some options where people feel their fur baby is safe is a good start.