Hurricane Sandy Pets: Lots of Heartache, but Plenty of Hope Too

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, pets may be doing more than anything else to comfort their owners during this time of loss. We are now entering a gray zone.

Hurricane Sandy pets
Kaitlyn Miller and her Boxer, Coulton, took refuge at a pet-friendly shelter in Toms River, New Jersey. Credit: The American Red Cross

The media is teeming with stories about pets and Hurricane Sandy. These tales are both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

Pets Adviser readers understand that pets are part of a family, often giving comfort when nothing else can. That’s why I don’t understand a comment left on a well-researched story about the plight of the Sandy pets that went something like this: “Who cares about the stupid pets when so many people have lost everything?”

I guess this commenter puts no stock in the human-animal bond.

The loss of all your earthly possessions is beyond comprehension for many of us, but most people in the eye of the storm left everything they owned behind them… except their pets. They did anything they could, probably with nightmares of Hurricane Katrina in their heads, to take their pets with them. In a shelter,  a hotel or in someone else’s home, if they have their pets with them, they feel a little more “whole.”

So, Mr. Clueless, even if you don’t care about the pets themselves, realize these pets may be doing more than anything else to comfort their owners during this time of devastating loss.

The Human–Animal Bond

You know, I don’t understand people who don’t get the animal thing.  I mean I really don’t get it.

Forget about cute kitten and puppy photos. I’m talking about humans who don’t comprehend that a pet is a member of a family. Even if you’re one of the unlucky people who didn’t get the animal-loving gene, have some respect for those of us who did. Saying you don’t care about the pets affected by the storm is like saying you don’t care about their owners.

Caring for the victims of the storm means wanting them to have their life back again, and that includes their dogs, cats, sundry little furry and chirping things, and, in one case, a tarantula.

That’s right. There’s a young boy who was able to take his gerbils to his aunt in Brooklyn, but she put the brakes on when it came to the tarantula. He left a lot of food and is hoping he can get back to his home and find his arachnid in tip-top tarantula form.

Recently on the CBS morning news, there was a brief human interest story on “contagious yawning.” You know, when you see a person yawning, you begin to feel like, well, yawning too. (A secret from my days as an actress: Never yawn on stage. It makes the audience yawn too.)

CBS reported on  a new study that shows that as dogs mature, by about age 3 or 4, they will often yawn back at their owners if their owners are yawning at them. The study suggested that as dogs grow closer to humans, they share an empathic bond. Those pets displaced by Sandy are feeling the same things as their owners: lost, afraid, confused.

If pet and human can weather this storm, the fear and the unknown together, they can give each other strength.

How many of you have told a friend that when you were sick with the flu, your dog never left your side? Or the cat slept on your sick bed for a week? They know, they feel, they help us. That’s why we have to help them.

Orion the parrot went missing in New York City when he flew out of the window during Hurricane Sandy. (drpavloff/Flickr)

We are now entering that gray zone after a disaster strikes. People are homeless, in temporary situations, not knowing when the pieces of their lives will organize into a completed puzzle again. Many people are only finding out now that their homes will have to be razed. Rebuilding or relocating is a great unknown, and they are in limbo.

Many folks who had to evacuate or were in imminent danger from the storm left with the clothes on their backs and with their pets. They left all their other belongings but took their pets. People are in shelters with nothing, but they can brave a smile when they can hug that animal that’s in the shelter or hotel room with them. Or, they can visit their pet in a shelter and it’s one big worry off their mind, as they think about putting their lives back together.

Others left their pets behind and are desperate because they can’t get back to their homes. Luckily, the rescue effort of abandoned pets has been good but not perfect. People who don’t know the fate of pets left behind are suffering.

The rise in microchipping is helping the reunification effort, as well as social media. And here’s something exciting to know: You can get reimbursed for the cost of microchipping under Embrace Pet Insurance’s Wellness Rewards. Curious about the cost of pet health insurance? It’s more affordable than you probably think. Get your FREE, no-hassle quote here (affiliate link).

But even with all these improvements, there are many animals in temporary shelters, and their owners can’t be located.

You can donate to the big guys, ASPCA and the Humane Society. This money will be well spent. Some smaller sites have some great ways to donate or participate, particularly if you are local. Check out Mousebreath for some cat ideas: 13 More Ways to Help Feline Victims. There’s also plenty of opportunity to open up your home and foster an animal if you are able.

Gimme Shelter

Rachael Ray donated $500,000, 4 tons of her pet food, Nutrish, as well as $100,000 to the food bank.

This large gift has enabled the ASPCA to open a 20,000-square-foot pop-up shelter in a vacant warehouse in Brooklyn for displaced pets in New York. The New York Times reported the shelter will be able to house 700 animals. Each animal is entitled to stay free of charge for 30 days, with free veterinary care, until it can be reunited with its owners.

“The silver lining of a disaster,” said Matt Bershadker, senior VP of the ASPCA’s anti-cruelty group, “is that some of these animals have never seen a veterinarian, or it had been awhile.”

This 30-day span will give some people a grace period. Instead of surrendering their pets out of desperation, they have a little breathing time to get themselves together, and visit their pets in the shelter. Some owners have been spending money to board their pets. One woman was paying $100 round-trip cab fare to go back and forth visiting her pet in a temporary shelter.

California, Here We Come

Sixty displaced animals have been flown to San Diego, thanks to Southwest Airlines, Sea World, BP and the Helen Woodward Animal Shelter in Southern California. The flight crew and veterinarians volunteered their time to help the operation.

Many other shelters are taking any animals they can, but the problem, as always, is room. Our local shelter has taken in as many pets as possible but has also cried out for people to adopt cats already housed in the shelter. There’s no room at the inn!

Like most of you, as I watch the people searching for photographs amid the rubble that was once their life, I cannot comprehend what they are feeling. I become paralyzed with sadness for them.

But when I look at the photographs and videos of victims with their pets, holding their dogs and their cats, I have hope. One woman took her black and white rabbit out of a carrier. “She’s my life,” said the woman, as she hugged the sweet bunny. For now, they are both safe, and they are together. And that, my friends, is comfort from the storm.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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