The earth is running amok with a domino effect of natural disasters everywhere you look. The World Health Organisation estimates that every year, natural disasters affect close to 160 million people worldwide. The ‘Attenborough Effect’ means that people are better aware of the impact that natural disasters have on the planet in general terms, however, knowledge and information are elusive when it comes to the direct repercussions for and the personal experience of the animals involved. As a result, perhaps, there is a gap in the law worldwide when it comes to safeguarding the animals who endure these life-threatening conditions.
In recent months, the world watched in horror as an area the size of 6.3 million sports fields burned in Australia, and what has been drawn into focus is the vast scale of animal suffering. We are now told that more than 1 billion animals have lost their lives, and many more their homes or food supply. Not only this, but more animals are to be culled in what is said to be an effort to preserve the much-needed water supply.
While the efforts of the responding emergency services and charitable organisations have undoubtedly been heroic, and cannot go without gratitude, the mind cannot help but wander to how the effort might differ if it were 1 billion human lives at stake. here has been an absence of preparation for such an event, which, while not on such a scale, is a relatively frequent occurrence in Australia. As the Charity, World Animal Protection has recognised, it isn’t enough to respond to a disaster, it is important to be proactive.
When disaster strikes, natural or not, humans are protected by the international laws that uphold their human rights. In England (at the present time) and other countries in the European Union, this comes under the European Convention, and, in addition, member states share a Civil Protection mechanism, which provides for countries to offer aid to each other in times of need. In March 2019, the Council of Europe announced that it was implementing further measures to enhance risk prevention and provide timely support to member states, and other participating countries, through means such as setting up ‘rescEU’, which could, for example, make provision for aerial means of forest fire combat.
Non-human animals, however, are not as fortunate when it comes to their legal armoury. As well as being afforded inferior rights, there are effectively different ‘classes’ of animals each of which are given various unsatisfactory levels of protection, and this often seems to depend on how useful or close they are to humans. The lack of concrete legal structures to protect animals during natural disasters not only impacts the animals themselves but also means the responsibility for rescue efforts often falls on charities or government services, depleting their already overly exercised emergency resources. In addition, humans suffer the repercussions, as they may lose their livestock, the animals on which they depend, or, may be forced to part with their companions.
In the UK, we are, of course, very fortunate that catastrophic natural disasters are very rare, however, with global warming, we do see flooding and droughts with increasing frequency, and other extreme weather conditions, too. The main legislation designed to protect animals in the UK is the Animal Welfare Act 2006. However, while this encompasses the protection of ‘owned’ animals during natural disasters or extreme weather conditions, there is no specific legislation in the UK designed to address the repercussions of such an event, or extended to animals classed as wild. For livestock and zoo animals, there are Welfare Codes that set out how the animals should be cared for; this guidance applies at all times and aligns with the normal standard of care, failures to adhere to which, should result in a prison sentence or fines.
The picture becomes more concerning upon zooming out and examining a lot of the international laws worldwide (or lack of) designed to protect animals in countries where natural disasters are more prevalent. There seems to be a stark absence of legal guardianship. The responsibility often falls to charities such as The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (‘ASPCA’), or World Animal Protection, to make rescue efforts. In 2018, the ASPCA reported that it assisted more than 9,000 animals through pre-disaster evacuations, field rescue, and post-disaster relief efforts. This was as a result of Hurricanes Florence and Michael, the eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano, and mudslides and wildfires in California, where they had no other means of protection.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 was probably the event that drew the world’s attention to animal welfare, as media consumers became quite morbidly enthralled with images of pets emaciated, dying and in peril. About 1.2 million people were evacuated from Florida and Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, and they were told they could not take their pets. Around 15,000 pets were rescued, however, 90,000 New Orleans pets were never accounted for, and there are accounts that suggest around 600,000 died or were left without any form of shelter. The Red Cross had designated responsibility in the aftermath and estimated that around 50,000 pet animals had been left behind. Those who were accommodated in overcrowded shelters were often euthanized, despite being healthy. In addition to this, about 100,000 people did not evacuate because of their companions, many of whom also lost their lives.
A large part of the problem is that Federal disaster relief organisations, such as the Red Cross, who are responsible for overseeing the aftermath of disasters, prevent animals from accessing rescue vehicles or shelters with their owners, due to health and safety, unless they are assistance animals. This of course inevitably leads to pet owners making agonising choices, often coming down to whether to sacrifice their companion’s life or their own. This is a fundamental flaw in the fabric of legal protection for both animals and humans.
Following hurricane Katrina, American congress passed the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act in 2006. This is probably the most concrete and promising legislation that we have worldwide when it comes to specifically protecting animals during disasters. The Act actively requires states to incorporate animals into their disaster preparedness plans and authorises the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rescue, shelter and care for people with pets and service animals. It also means that states receive funding for this, and enables FEMA to reimburse state and local governments for rescuing, caring for and sheltering animals in an emergency, and it applies to the time before, during and after a disaster. Since the Act has come to fruition, 30 states have amended their disaster relief plans to account for the needs of companion animals and service animals.
This being acknowledged, the Act still has a long way to go. It only provides for certain companion animals, service animals, and those that are identified as ‘household pets’. ‘Household pets’ encompasses a rather small and unimaginative group including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, rodents, and turtles. Reptiles, fish, horses and farmed animals are excluded from the definition. There is no protection for farmed animals, not even a requirement for farmers to have a contingency plan to move their animals to safety. There is no protection for animals in small zoos or menageries either. Many communities still have not implemented the terms of the Act, meaning, for example, they still have no animal-friendly shelters. This legal lacuna is sadly reflected all over the country, and the world. In 2019, a Florida Bill looked at making it illegal to keep dogs chained up outside during natural disasters. The outcome of this appears promising, but the Senate has asked for greater clarity before bringing its effects to fruition.
What seems to be quite clear, when looking at legislation worldwide, is that protection for animals in natural disasters, where present at all, is largely afforded to those who are close to, or useful to humans, and not to animals in their own right. This speaks volumes about our general perception of animals worldwide, where disasters are an increasingly prevalent occurrence. We need to take more responsibility worldwide for ensuring that animals, domesticated, and wild, are given the legal protection they need and deserve.
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