Natural disasters are one source of animal harm that wild animals are particularly vulnerable to. Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and natural forest fires can have devastating consequences. Even when it would be possible to help them, most animals affected by natural disasters are left to die or to endure debilitating injuries that could have healed with proper treatment. Like wild animals, domesticated animals can also be harmed by natural disasters; however, they are more likely to be rescued.
Animals in the wild
Every year there are about 600 important (according to human standards) natural disasters worldwide in areas inhabited by humans. In addition to extraordinary occurrences, fires and floods occur frequently, and can ravage the earth and jeopardize the lives of animals across the world. From the perspective of nonhuman animals, especially small animals, disasters come harder and faster than they do for humans. For example, heavy rains may cause a river to burst out of its riverbed in a way that is harmless to humans but that causes serious harm to the animals in the area. Even if we take into account only the disasters that also affect human populations, the number of animal casualties far exceeds that of humans simply because there are so many more nonhuman animals than humans. However, in disaster situations, humans are generally the only ones taken into account, though this is starting to change. Sometimes the needs of wild animals are neglected because they are out of sight and out of mind, but many people think that what happens to animals living in the wild is none of our business and we should not “interfere with nature”. Those who think this typically have the view that we should care about natural ecosystems, but not individual animals. In some cases, only members of certain species that are considered valuable because they are scarce or for some other reason are rescued, but not other animals.
However, when animals are suffering and dying in the wild because of natural disasters, helping them is not a bad thing at all. If we think of wild animals as individuals and not merely as components of ecosystems, it becomes obvious that helping them is the best thing we can do for them. We know that other humans and domesticated animals can benefit from help in such situations, and there is no reason to expect that sentient wild animals are any different.
Some cases of rescues of animals after natural disasters have been documented. A large number of animals were rescued when massive floods swept across Australia in 2011 and 2013. In many cases, this didn’t require heroic action by rescuers. Rescuers most often found wild animals or knew where the animals were and went to pick them up, either by boat or by carrying them. Such things are not extraordinary achievements, and in situations like these it’s often quite possible to give help to wild animals when they need it. However, in most cases, wild animals in need are not helped because humans choose not to help them. Wild animals are usually left completely on their own after natural disasters.
During natural disasters, animals who are used by humans for food, labor, or other purposes are usually either abandoned or killed so they don’t have to be taken care of and to prevent disease transmission.1 Even animals who live in human homes often meet this fate. In some cases, authorities force people to leave the animals in their homes behind when they themselves are rescued, regardless of how desperately they want to save the animals. During disasters, most evacuation centers (including the ones set up by the Red Cross) do not accept nonhuman animals, often due to laws prohibiting it. As a result, these animals are often left behind to die. Those responsible for natural disaster evacuations often argue against taking rescued animals into the centers on the grounds that it protects humans against alleged risks.2 Though there have been some changes in the United States since Hurricane Katrina, in most places such policies continue to be enforced despite polls showing that those who live with nonhuman animals are often unwilling to part with their companions, even if it means they will be refused rescue.3
The following are some examples of cases in which a large number of animals have died due to abandonment or neglect after a natural disaster:
- During Hurricane Katrina, the US government prohibited the evacuation of animals and denied them access to shelters. It has been estimated that about 600,000 companion animals died, either by drowning or by starving.4
- When a volcano erupted in Chaitén, Chile, animal evacuation was initially prohibited. The government eventually succumbed to popular pressure and allowed animal evacuation, but the delay resulted in hundreds of deaths.5
- An earthquake in Lima, Peru, resulted in the deaths of thousands of animals, who were not taken into account in the government’s contingency plans.
- After the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, many animals were abandoned and were dying of starvation because they were not evacuated. These deaths added to the many deaths caused by the tsunami and the earthquake.6 An exception to this was the work undertaken by Naoto Matsumura, who decided to stay in the area to look after the abandoned animals.7
- Droughts in Madagascar in the early 90s caused the deaths of many domestic animals and wild animals.8
What you can do to help
If you live in an area prone to natural disasters, follow these guidelines to minimize animal suffering and deaths:
- Do not abandon animals. Make sure you have baskets or animal carriers at home to transport them in case of evacuation.
- Vaccinate the animals you live with to prevent the spread of disease.
- Provide a way to trace the animals you live with if they become lost. A collar or microchip is probably the most practical way to do this.
- If authorities force you to leave nonhuman animals behind, leave them a large amount of food and water at home. Do not tie them up or chain them because this will prevent them from reacting adaptively to their situation and cause other harms such as chafing, burns, and broken bones. All this is in addition, of course, to the stress that chained animals normally feel.
- Stick labels or put up notices on the outside of your home that there are animals inside who need to be rescued.
- If you come across animals who appear to be dead, touch them gently on the side of their eyes to check for ocular reflexes, which would indicate that they are still alive.
- Volunteer to participate in rescue teams with experienced animal rescuers.
- Be alert for any wild animals who are alone or at risk of drowning or death by any other means, and see if you can find a way to save them.
Speciesism leads to the neglect of nonhuman animals in natural disaster situations. By spreading the word about the need to help animals in these situations, we not only help save the lives of many individuals, but also convey an important message of respect, the message that humans are not the only animals who deserve moral consideration and that nonhuman animals’ interests should be taken into account.
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1 In 2008, floods occurred in the mid-eastern United States, which resulted in the slaughter of a large number of farms animals. USA Today (2008) “Pigs swam through floodwaters, shot on levee”, USA Today, 18 June [accessed on 11 March 2013].
3 This has even been noticed by American Kennel Club (2006) “AKC survey finds majority of owners would defy emergency evacuation orders and stay with pets”, akc.org [accessed on 17 March 2013].
5 EFE World News Service (2008) “Over 100 pets rescued from Chile volcano zone”, EFE World News Service, May 14.
8 Gould, L.; Sussman, R. W. & Sauther, M. L. (1999) “Natural disasters and primate populations: The effects of a 2-year drought on a naturally occurring population of ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) in Southwestern Madagascar”, International Journal of Primatology, 20, pp. 69-84.