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Senate approves bill to aid pets in disasters

State senators hope legislation they passed Thursday to create pet evacuation plans during emergencies will avoid scenes where residents are lifted from rooftops, clinging to their pets because they refuse to leave them behind and end up jeopardizing their own safety.

The Senate unanimously approved a bill that requires cities and towns to have plans in place to evacuate and shelter household pets and service animals before, during, and after an emergency or natural disaster.

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Too often people stay in their homes when they should evacuate, refusing to leave their pets behind, senators said.

“I have to admit as a dog owner, I don’t think I could leave my house and leave my dogs behind. I think all of us here would say the same,” said state Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who sponsored the bill.

The pet safety bill now heads to the House, where a supporter of the legislation said it has several cosponsors.

If it makes it to final passage, Massachusetts will join 13 other states that have laws aimed at protecting pets during an evacuation emergency, including Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, and New Jersey.

“This isn’t simply a human interest story about protecting pets. It is about protecting human life because so many of us wouldn’t leave,” said Senator Mark Montigny of New Bedford.

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Animal rights groups said Hurricane Sandy, which battered the East Coast in 2012, and other disasters around the country highlighted the need for evacuation plans. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, nearly half the people, 44 percent, who refused to evacuate said they could not bring themselves to abandon their pets, according to a survey conducted after the storm.

During Katrina, up to 600,000 animals were abandoned or left to fend for themselves as their owners evacuated flood zones. Up to 250,000 animals died, Spilka said.

Along with evacuation plans, the bill also asks communities to educate residents on the local resources available to them and their pets.

Montigny and state Senator Bruce Tarr, Republican of Gloucester, both said they hoped the pet safety bill would set the stage for other bills protecting animals.

Senate Republicans filed a bill last week to increase penalties for those convicted of abusing animals.

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