Inevitably in the wake of relief efforts for the animals of Japan, someone is going to say, “Why focus on helping animals? That money could be going to help people!” Before your hands constrict in a natural urge to throttle this individual, perhaps it’s worth it to examine why animal aid is important.
We animal lovers know why it’s important to us, but preaching to the choir doesn’t help when we’re trying to get help for animals from people who need to be convinced of the usefulness of spending time, money and manpower on the extraction, treatment, food and housing of distressed animals.
More importantly, let’s examine the reasons that can possibly help non-animal people to understand and even become supporters of our endeavours. Sometimes, a good explanation of why animal aid is an important part of disaster relief can help those with the power to divert funds to do so. Sometimes it can make someone who is not inclined to help animals as a default reaction a supporter of animal aid. It can also provide a good platform to advocate for budgeting of public funds to enable animal relief efforts in a disaster situation.
The Value of Life
In the end, those people who truly value human life will appreciate the value that other people place on non-human life. By taking steps to help pet animals or at least not blocking the attempts of others to help non-human animals, non-animal people can actually do more to help the people they claim to care so much about. No one reasonable is expecting non-animal people to value animal life in the same way they value human life, but they should be able to expect a respect for pet owners’ mental and emotional well-being. However, we can expect that non-animal people will recognize that other people have strong bonds to animals.
Pet animal owners view their animals as important parts of their family. While non-animal people may not understand this bond, they can certainly understand the feelings of love and affection towards other people. Animal people merely extend their ability to create emotional bonds to non-human animals. When viewing their feelings this way, non-animal people may understand that while *they* may not be able to feel this way towards a companion animal, many other people do.
To treat animals as afterthoughts of disaster relief causes pain, fear, stress and trauma to the human population who care deeply about non-human animals. The bonds are the same; the object of them is the only thing that is different. If one claims to value people, they must allow that if they believe humans are important because of the emotional bonds they have with other people, animals should be given a measure of value due to the emotional bonds other people have with them.
Shelters for People and Their Pets Are Needed
Setting aside shelter for families that include pet animals is important to retain the sense of cohesiveness that human beings have developed in relationships with their pets. Forcing people to abandon their families – yes, people who have pets often do consider them their families – is unnecessarily cruel and inhumane to both the people and the pets. While there are challenges when dealing with disaster survivors and pets in a crowded situation, trained professionals, clear rules and obligations and a system of addressing problems will go far in mitigating any issues that can arise. To force people to abandon their pets is akin to splitting up parents and children; the human in the relationship will experience feelings of pain and helplessness, trauma and self-loathing that they were not able to save their pet and experience worry and grief about the pet’s whereabouts and/or death.
Another positive response to disaster is to arrange communication between shelters and animal aid groups if a human shelter is unsuitable for a pet. This way, people will know that their animals are safe and cared-for while the owners must stay in a shelter.
In a disaster situation, where many people are left vulnerable due to the breakdown of law and order, having a pet with them can provide some protection and a sense of security. The presence of pets, especially dogs, lowers the likelihood of criminal acts against pet owners in disasters. Allowing people to keep their pets near them therefore may significantly reduce the demands on law enforcement personnel.
Helping Animals Helps People in Disasters
When people focus their efforts on saving helpless animals in the wake of a disaster, they are helping people both directly and indirectly. Searches for pet animals can turn up injured and incapacitated people. There are cases where human beings are too small, too young or too trapped to indicate their presence to searchers. A four-month-old baby was found in the wreckage of a building, 3 days after being ripped from the arms of her terrified parents by a tsunami wave. The pursuit of pet animals may well turn up human victims who would otherwise not be found.
For people facing the loss of family, friends, property and employment, addressing the needs of animals can be an extremely useful therapy, especially while conventional therapies are non-existent. The daily chores of feeding, exercising, training and cleaning can help give a disaster survivor a sense of purpose while their lives are in upheaval. Helping animals who are lost and frightened can help a disaster survivor regain their sense of control and ability to make positive changes in their world.
Pets as Risk
Another reason for aiding pet animals is to lower the risk of animal attacks and the spreading of disease. Finding and treating pet animals reduces the likelihood of people being attacked or cut off from aid by frightened and starving pets. Any pet can become dangerous when under high amounts of stress; giving these animals a secure temporary home and an established schedule will go far in re-establishing their trust in people.
When numbers of pets are wandering loose and making contact with wild/feral animals, the risk of disease is very high and can spread quickly through the homeless animal population. When these animals are quickly taken to shelters and treated for any infections/disease they have, the risk of a mass outbreak is minimized.
“Why Can’t We Just Shoot Them?”
When faced with the issues of domestic animals in a homeless situation, some people think that mass killing is the answer. They reason that if pet animals pose a potential threat to human beings, that they should be eliminated. I argue that this will cause more problems than it solves.
Most pets are not a threat to people. The ones that are threatening may have to be killed to preserve the lives and well-being of other people, but this is not true of most pets.
While non-animal people might view these beings on the same level as a car or a computer, they must allow that for pet-owning people, the arbitrary killing of their pets would cause extreme and unnecessary stress. For a large proportion of society, pets are a large and important part of their lives; to kill pet animals in the wake of a widespread tragedy would cause further trauma.
Another issue is what these people propose to do with the bodies of dead pets, bodies that will breed disease and infection. There are often too many dead people and animals left by disasters; adding more with nowhere to put them would effectively negate any “good” done by ending these animals’ lives. Pets may also help keep disease and infection to a minimum by hunting rats and other vermin that proliferate in a disaster situation and by eating food unfit for human consumption that would otherwise rot and spread disease in an area where the sanitation systems have not been re-established.
The population of pet owners in most developed countries is such that an organization that tried this as a means of addressing the abandoned animal population would fall drastically out of favour politically. This has farther reaching consequences than just being voted out of office; it can actually impact aid efforts from other countries. The Internet never forgets, which means any negative publicity would be around for a long time.
Helping Animals Helps Society
Aiding pet animals in times of widespread disaster is part and parcel of aiding society as a whole. While no one can expect the same kind of resources used to aid animals as are being used to aid people, a budget to rescue and maintain abandoned/homeless animals should be part of any community’s disaster plan. Not only does this help animals, it helps people by giving them hope that the animals in their lives have some chance at a happier future.