When Disaster Strikes, Who Helps the Animals?

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Published: May 01, 2015

One of the beautiful defense mechanisms built into our collective human psyche is the ability to turn away from overwhelming emotions, to remove ourselves from a disturbing scenario so we are able to continue on about our days without the intrusive horror of thinking about someone else’s terrible situations all day and night.

This is an excellent tool as it allows us to persevere in the face of the sometimes hard-to-comprehend tragedies in life, but feeling so far removed from others’ pain also creates a somewhat convenient way to absolve ourselves of responsibility to take action.

Last week, an enormous 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing over 4,000 people at last report with the number expected to climb in the days ahead. With a struggling government and minimal infrastructure in place, the initial response has been practically nonexistent; people digging through rubble with their hands to try to free their family members, thousands of injured people turned away by hospitals struggling to save the most badly injured.

It’s easy to turn the TV off or maybe share a post on Facebook. Without the constant attentive eye of the world attuned 24/7, the world at large quickly moves on. Which is why I have so much respect for disaster relief organizations who are prepared to deploy at a moment’s notice anywhere in the world. We take our resources for granted in the U.S., but the situation in other parts of the world can be dire, and it requires a concerted, long-term commitment to work.

Although it rarely gets mentioned in the news owing to the understandable scale of human suffering in large scale natural disasters, animals suffer greatly, too. Both companion animals and livestock are left to fend for themselves, injured and starving. They can also be disease vectors. Farmers who rely on these animals for their livelihoods can be decimated by the loss of a herd.

I have trained with animal disaster response, and one of the things I hear over and over again when people hear about animal relief organizations responding to a disaster is, “Why? Why would you even bother trying to help an animal when there are so many people suffering who should be the first priority?” It's a fair question. Here’s my response:

  1. I help where my skills can be utilized. My training is in animal care. I would be in the way trying to help people, so I don’t get in the way. Our work is not in lieu of human relief, it is concurrent.
  2. Large organizations such as the Red Cross do not have the resources or training to provide animal relief. If animal organizations don’t help, no one will. We saw after Hurricane Katrina that a lack of animal relief options cost people their lives, as many people refused to evacuate if they could not take their pets with them. It is not the most important element of disaster response, but it is important.
  3. Animal assistance is necessary to protect human health. Dead, diseased, or injured animals can create major health hazards if left alone. Local animal welfare agencies in developing countries are often ill-prepared to deal with the challenges of a major disaster, and the support of an international organization is often necessary to coordinate a large scale effort with both supplies and manpower.

I don’t know anyone in the world of animal relief work who believes people should support their work above that of human aid. Most of the people I know who volunteer to travel to disaster areas donate generously of their money and their time to human help as well; at home and while they travel. 

I will be making a donation to the Red Cross disaster response effort in Nepal, and I will also make a donation to World Vets for their concurrent animal relief work in the area. This organization has been on the ground in Thailand, Japan, the Phillipines, and anywhere else they are needed. I have confidence in their work.

Do you donate to animal relief efforts when disaster strikes? What are your thoughts?

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang

Image: Houses ruined during the earthquake of Elazig. survivors of the earthquake, by thomas koch / Shutterstock