Keeping Your Reptile Safe When Disaster Strikes

A glance at a weather map in the summer usually shows tropical disturbances lining up in Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf waters, as peak hurricane season approaches. Each year, millions of communities face the risk of forest fires as the air gets warmer and drier. And earthquakes and tornadoes strike with little warning.

No one can tell you exactly when and where the next man-made or natural disaster will strike. Planning ahead and being prepared will help keep your family, including pets, intact or can help reunite families and lost pets.

The protection of pets during calamity was strengthened with the agreement between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). These organizations have agreed to cooperate in developing evacuation and sheltering plans for pets. Familiarizing yourself with your community's disaster plans is an important first step in safeguarding yourself and your pets.

The following true story underscores the importance of having a plan.

Don't Be Caught Unprepared

Hurricane Floyd, a Category 5 storm, roared up the East Coast in September 1999. Its floods wreaked havoc on pets and their owners. Like thousands of others, Bridget, a 12-year-old Beagle-mix, had her life turned upside down.

Officials knocked on the door and told Bridget's owner Margaret to leave her home in Manville, N.J., immediately. A flood was imminent. For health reasons, emergency public shelters allow only service animals inside. So Margaret tied Bridget in the kitchen, near her food bowl, to keep her safe.

Water seeped in under the door. Bridget jumped on the kitchen table. It began to float. When the water calmed down, her leash was tangled in debris. She could barely move. Two days later, animal rescue workers found her starving and terrified atop a 6-foot pile of rubble. They freed her, and she made it back to Margaret.

They were among the fortunate. In Floyd's aftermath, hundreds of cats, dogs and other house pets drowned, suffered wild animal bites, or barely survived intestinal parasites from drinking sewage water. Although the University of North Carolina Veterinary School and other clinics treated hundreds of injured animals, many never saw their owners again.

Start Planning Now

If you're ordered to evacuate, "do everything you can to take your pets with you," warns Howard White, media relations director for HSUS. "Domestic animals need human care to survive." The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises you to plan ahead and follow the HSUS disaster plan for your pets. It's similar to the one you have for the rest of your family.

Additional handy phone numbers include animal control, police, fire, public health department, local humane organization, animal shelter and local Red Cross chapter.

Prepare a Pet Emergency 'Kit to Go'

Keep your evacuation kit and first-aid kit together. You may be away for a day or a week, so be prepared with the following supplies, kept in a duffle bag or covered container, preferably on wheels:

When It's Time to Leave

Reptiles are typically confined to an aquarium or other enclosure. There is little risk of them escaping and hiding during evacuation time. Even so, it is much safer for your pet to take him with you instead of leaving him behind to fend for himself. Aquariums don't fare too well in severe disasters and your reptile could get lost or injured.

Internet to the Rescue

The Internet provides an opportunity for reuniting pets and their humans as never before. When wildfires in Los Alamos, N.M., separated pets from their families, the Santa Fe Animal Shelter took pictures of rescued animals and posted them on their Web site. Having first used the Internet system after the Oklahoma City super-tornado, the HSUS now includes Internet guidelines in their disaster procedures.

A New Attitude

Just a few years back, emergency agencies advised evacuating people to leave their pets locked safely in a windowless room on a high floor, preferably in a bathroom with a counter, with enough food and water for a week, with separate rooms for each species. Now we know that this should be done only as a last resort.