Evacuating with Pets Saves Lives

Comparing disasters is difficult. In California, as fires advanced most residents under mandatory or voluntary evacuation departed. According to local press reports ” even though some resident did stay to fight fire on their own – more residents left their homes compared to four years ago when the Crest Fires swept through the San Diego area. And certainly more complied to evacuate compared with residents who hunkered down in New Orleans to ride out Hurricane Katrina.

There are many reasons why residents in New Orleans didn’t leave. For one thing, without transportation many had no way out. Mike Arms, president and executive director of the Helen Woodward Animal Center, a shelter in Rancho Santo Fe, offers another explanation, “We learned offering places to evacuate with pets is essential.”

Arms was asked to evacuate his own home on Monday morning (October 22). Practicing what he had been preaching, Arms had a plan. However, as he learned, in emergencies things don’t always go as planned. He says his family was prepared to evacuate to a Sheraton Hotel. Unfortunately, according to Arms, the Hotel reversed its pet friendly policy, and even jacked up their room rates.

“I wouldn’t have vacated if we had nowhere to take the pets; leaving them just wasn’t an option,” Arms says. Luckily, his wife Carol found accommodations at the Handlery Hotel and Resort San Diego Mission Valley, where pets were welcomed. Meanwhile, Mike drove to work, to the Helen Woodward Animal Center.

John Van Zandt, the Center’s public relations director, described the scene at around 9:30 a.m. (on Monday). “I was driving into work headed east on the highway, and I could see the fire moving in from the West.”

Not waiting for an order to evacuate, at around 10 a.m., employees and volunteers at the Center began to get the animals out of harm’s way. It turns out local officials soon did suggest an evacuation. The head start helped. By 1 p.m., with smoke looming heavy in the air, foster families, volunteers and staff homes became a safe haven for over 400 animals.

“I thanked the soot-covered staff and volunteers,” Arms pauses, as he fills with emotion. “I told them, ‘go home to your families, and be safe.’ I was the last one to turn off the light and close the door ” knowing I may never see the Center again.”

Mike joined his cats Fresca and Billie, his Labrador Retriever Wilson and his wife Carol at the Handlery Hotel and Resort. “It seems everyone staying here has at least one pet,” he says from his hotel room. “They should change the name of this place to the pet hotel.”

Estimates range from 10,000 to nearly triple that number at one time or another evacuated to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego (where the San Diego Chargers play football). While pets haven’t been allowed inside the facility, there are pet friendly accommodations in the parking lot. Hundreds of pet crates and carriers (many donated by San Diego-based Petco) were lined up as cars would be.

Karen Pearlman of San Diego says, “My home at least seemed safe, so I felt I had to do something.” She purchased dog and cat food and then visited her veterinarian’s office for donated blankets and leashes. Pearlman delivered these items to pet owners and volunteers at Qualcomm. “It’s clear the pets are very welcome, and there were many volunteers to assist people and pets,” she says. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of barking, and in fact, it seemed the pets helped ease stress.

Pets are even more welcome at Del Mar Fairgrounds, the other major San Diego area evacuation facility. Pets are allowed to get away from the smoke, taking refuge with their people inside the largest air conditioned building on the campus. There’s a separate place within that same building for those who prefer not to be near pets.

Miguel Hernandez is a real estate investor in Rancho Santa Fe; he evacuated to the Fairgrounds with his wife Alma and his two Golden Retrievers, Macy and Toby. “Of course, I needed to find somewhere to go that allowed the dogs ” they’re a part of our family,” he says. “I’m glad they’re allowed to stay with us and they don’t have to stay outside in the smoke. I don’t know how well they’d do without us. And I know we wouldn’t do as well without them.”

Kina Paegert, information officer at the Fairgrounds, said they scrambled when so many people with pets showed up. “I had no idea so many people had pets,” she says.

About two thousand people evacuated to the Fairgrounds. In all, Paegert says there are hundreds of pets. “We’re happy to have them (the pets) because I believe they actually do relieve stress. Many people begin talking with one another when they meet at the dog walking area, and then they share resources and share their feelings. I am very glad that we decided to allow pets.”

Paegert says the scene of mayhem and violence described to the nation from the Superdome in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina has not been repeated in San Diego (of course food and supplies are available in San Diego, they weren’t in New Orleans). “People are doing everything they can to help one another,” she says. “In fact, tragedy has brought out the best in people ” it’s truly quite inspiring to witness.”

Van Zandt says he received many emails from residents offering to specifically help people with pets. One email was from a woman who lost everything in the fires from four years ago, except her pets and the clothes on her back. “She offered to take in a person and a pet ” obviously they would be perfect strangers ” into her small apartment. She said she knows how her dog helped her through at a time when she thought she couldn’t go on.”

In addition to the companion animals at the Fairgrounds, 600 horses and two zebra (Paegert has no idea where the zebra are from) are being kept in stalls in one facility, and another 1,930 horses in another.

For residents who couldn’t seem to find a place to evacuate with pets, kennels and veterinary clinics opened their doors and generally at no charge.

“I’m proud of our community,” says Pearlman, who is a staffer at the San Diego Union Tribune. “People really have come together.”


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