Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The impact of pets on decisions about disasters

If you have a pet, chances are you think of it as a member of your family; you probably provide attention and care for it in a manner not unlike the way in which you might devote yourself to a child. This sort of human-animal relationship has become increasingly common over the last several decades, particularly in the West. Researchers from the Texas Woman's University and Jacksonville State University have recently reported on how these human-animal relationships can influence decision making during disaster events, potentially leading pet owners to put themselves at risk in order to stay close to their animals.

 (Forging a human-animal bond)

According to the authors, the impacts of human-animal relationships on disaster response have only been studied for about a decade, making this a relatively young field of research. Early studies were focused on understanding whether, and how, owners and non-owners differed in their evacuation and re-entry patterns. In the aftermath of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, extensive national media coverage made it widespread knowledge that many potential evacuees refused to leave their homes because emergency facilities refused to accept pets. This led to passage of the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which sought to protect a greater number of people by requiring emergency preparedness plans to include provisions for animals. In the current study, the researchers sought to investigate whether the PETS Act is effective--in other words, are people with pets now more likely to evacuate ahead of a storm, knowing that they can take their animals with them?

Specifically, the scientists assessed the influence of two "dimensions" of the human-animal bond, attachment and commitment, on likelihood to evacuate homes prior to an oncoming hurricane. They hypothesized that stronger levels of both would result in a greater likelihood of evacuating, since owners should want to get both themselves and their animals to safety--and, under the PETS act, are legally guaranteed the opportunity to do so. Their study population included individuals living in areas of Texas from which residents were strongly encouraged to evacuate during 2008's Hurricane Ike.

(Hurricane Ike, the second-costliest hurricane ever to make landfall in the US)

Ten months after the hurricane had passed, the researchers mailed surveys that collected data on five main topics: whether people evacuated, whether they were pet owners, how attached and committed they were to their pets, and demographic data that can influence human-animal relationships (such as gender, age, and whether the respondents had children). Admittedly, "attachment" and "commitment" are difficult to measure, and the surveys made use of the Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale and the Miller-Rada Commitment to Pets Scale, respectively, to assess these dimensions. Both scales utilize a series of questions, such as "I love my pet because it does not judge me," and "If a young pet required extensive veterinary care, I would get rid of it," to which respondents must agree or disagree to a varying degree; responses are added to provide a numerical value indicating level of attachment or commitment.

Of 120 residents surveyed, the majority (78.3%) evacuated their homes during the hurricane. Respondents indicated moderate levels of both attachment and commitment to their pets, and, unsurprisingly, the researchers found that these two factors were significantly positively related to each other. Using two different types of analysis, the scientists found that attachment, but not commitment, was a significant predictor of evaluation. Surprisingly, however, people were less likely to evacuate when they were highly attached to their pets. In fact, 38.5% of non-evacuees indicated that pets were the reason they stayed behind to brave the storm.

(Dogs stranded in flooded parts of Texas during the aftermath of Hurricane Ike)

Assuming this study population is an accurate microcosm of the American populace, approximately 10 people out of every 120, or 8% of residents, would choose to remain in their homes during an emergency in order to stay with their pets. Multiplied by all of the natural disasters that happen across the country in a given year, that's a startling number of people whose attachment to their animals places them at risk. What's even more surprising, though, is the finding that there were also evacuees who indicated that they left because of their pets (presumably in order to take them along and get them to safety).

Thus, this appears to be a complex issue. Some residents may not have the resources available to transport or care for their animals away from home, even if they want to, while others may worry about the potential danger of the commute. The authors also suggest that the trends reported here, which mimic those from the pre-PETS Act era, indicate a lack of familiarity with, or trust of, the pro-animal legislation. Residents may not realize that they are permitted to take animals into emergency shelters, for instance, or they may not trust the government to provide adequate pet care in those settings. Follow-up studies will be needed to explore this in further detail.

(Although many pets fled from Hurricane Ike along with their owners, others had to be rescued after the storm was over; local animal shelters took in hundreds of animals--including large species such as horses--in the days after the hurricane.)

For now, it is clear that pets are important "non-human social actors" in modern America, and are seen more as "vulnerable dependents" than as possessions. Owners are committed to the safety and happiness of their animals, which influences important decision-making processes. Currently, emergency planners and legislators continue to see animal care as a means to entice residents to leave their homes during disasters. However, the authors suggest that emergency evacuations might go even more smoothly, and attract a larger number of participants, if their coordinators view pets in the same way that owners do: as furry/feathery/scaly members of the family.

Brackenridge, S., Zottarelli, L.K., Rider, E., and Carlsen-Landy, B. 2012. Dimensions of the human-animal bond and evacuation decisions among pet owners during Hurricane Ike. Anthrozoos 25(2):229-238.

Thanks to the following websites for providing the images used in this post:

1 comment:

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