During a winter storm in February 2013, about 300 people stayed in the emergency shelter at Scituate High School. But humans weren’t the only ones seeking refuge. According to Scituate animal control officer Kim Stewart, the school also hosted 51 dogs, 12 cats, a guinea pig, and one little boy’s pride and joy: a bearded dragon. But Stewart was prepared with animal-wrangling equipment and an established emergency pet plan.
Thanks to a new state law, communities across the state will now follow Scituate’s lead and make similar emergency preparations for pets. The new Massachusetts legislation is open-ended, requiring that any municipal emergency plan include “strategies to support the needs of people with household pets” and that local governments should “take appropriate steps to educate the public regarding the resources available.” Though the law doesn’t outline specifications for what those resources should be, it puts the burden of planning on cities and towns.
The law is not unprecedented, however. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, which required that states seeking federal disaster assistance include household pets and service animals in their evacuation plans.
Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said his department supported the new state law.
“It’s something we’ve been working with communities on well before any legislation was in place,” he said. “Particularly in the South Shore and the Cape, most towns already have included pets in their plans.”
Judge cited Scituate and Marshfield as examples of south suburbs that have been leaders of emergency pet regulations. He said coastal communities often are at the forefront of emergency planning in the state because they are hit hardest by winter weather.
“Because of the coastal storm threat, historically, there have been more town shelters and regional shelters there than in other parts of the state,” he said. “You want people to evacuate and leave when there’s a threat of flooding. That was an incentive for us, because there were people who would not leave their homes because they didn’t want to leave their pets.”
Stewart’s plan involved taking an animal census as the evacuees came through the door, having cages set up, and being armed with cat litter and kibble. Some animals stayed in cages by their owners’ cots, others were housed in a hallway in the school, and still more stayed at the animal shelter up the street. There was an animal-free zone for people with phobias and allergies.
“All of our rules are explicitly written out,” Stewart said. “The animals had to be caged at all times, especially during sleeping hours, except for when they needed to take bathroom breaks. They weren’t allowed anywhere where food was being served.”
Aaron Wallace, emergency management director for the town of Plymouth, is making new arrangements for storm season because of the law. Wallace says that he’s met with animal control, but that resources are limited because animal management equipment like leashes and cages aren’t covered by the federal Emergency Management Performance Grant this year. Wallace said he hopes to coordinate with the Friends of the Council on Aging to set up a donation drive before the winter.
“We have a very limited amount of funding. It’s on the pet owner, and if the pet owner is not prepared to provide for their animals, it’s a setback,” said Wallace. “I’m more concerned about having wheelchairs, walkers, and human services available than I am about leashes and muzzles.”
Historically, the Red Cross has not allowed animals at its emergency shelters, though in recent years the organization has set aside a small animal holding area at select locations, including Plymouth.
But even when the rule was universal, it wasn’t always strictly enforced. Faith Bowker-Maloney, the former Red Cross disaster chairwoman for Scituate, said that during the Blizzard of ’78, she allowed dogs, a bird, and a tame raccoon into Scituate High School.
“I can really say we had no problems. We were lucky,” she said. “We were told later that it was against the rules. For some things, you just had to look the other way. Our animal control person was out of town at that time, and our primary thing was to help the people in the shelter. We tried to keep the animals in classrooms, not the general population. They did become a source of entertainment.”
Bowker-Maloney added that there were a few families who didn’t want to evacuate and leave their pets behind. “Some people were coming into the shelter very distraught,” she said.
Rob Halpin, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said he, too, has heard stories about people refusing to evacuate because of their pets. He said that not having a contingency plan for animals puts not only pets but also their owners and first responders at risk.
“As an organization, our mission is to safeguard the well-being of animals. It feels good when we can protect people, too,” Halpin said.
He added that with coastal erosion and sea level rise, South Shore residents are likely to see more frequent and more severe storms in coming years.
“There’s likely to be an increase in evacuations,” Halpin said. “While it’s necessary not to make people panic, it’s also important that people feel safe and comfortable, and know there’s a plan in place. For people who live in coastal towns, now is the time — before the storms come — to prepare.”Cara Bayles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.