Emergency Preparedness of Animal Sanctuaries in the Path of Natural Disasters

By: Amy O’Brien

In the past two months, natural disasters have been striking the United States, and its territories, at alarming rates—and strengths. The aftermath has been devastating with thousands of people displaced from their homes and billions of dollars projected to repair the destruction.[1] Hurricane Harvey dumped over 27 billion gallons of rain on the greater Houston area within a six-day period.[2] Hurricane Irma left over six million Floridians without power.[3] In mid-September, Hurricane Maria ravaged through Puerto Rico leaving millions of people without access to electricity, clean drinking water, cellular service, and gasoline.[4] October brought blazing wildfires throughout California, claiming 42 human lives and igniting more than 245,000 acres.[5]

In the wake of these devastations, the fates of the millions of animals—domestic, wild, and captive—that have been displaced are left hanging in the balance. After Harvey, thousands of pets were missing, often due to their owners having to evacuate quickly or lack of space at local shelters.[6] The fear of leaving their beloved furry friend to face a pending storm often weighs heavily in the minds of many citizens in the path of natural disasters. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2006, a poll revealed that “44 percent of people who chose not to evacuate during Katrina did so because they did not want to abandon their pets.”[7]

Statistics, and devastating evidence, have revealed that many faithful pet owners would rather “weather the storm” than leave a pet behind. But what happens to those that are responsible for the well-being of large, exotic animals? Such is the question presented to the owners and operators of animal sanctuaries. Florida and Texas combined are home to twenty-eight accredited animal sanctuaries that serve as retirement homes for farm animals, big cats (lions, tigers, etc.), elephants, and other animals that spent their younger years with factory farms, circuses, zoos, and other entertainment facilities.[8] These sanctuaries often span hundreds of acres with large animals that are not readily movable on the often short-notice that accompanies natural disasters. In order to combat the furies of polarizing weather patterns and climate change, these sanctuaries have emergency procedures set in place.[9] Often, these procedures involve moving the animals into large on-site enclosures that are equipped to house the animals for multiple days, if necessary.[10]

To aid accredited sanctuaries in their emergency preparedness, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (“GFAS”) created a crisis guide, Low Impact Exit Strategies.[11] Of greatest significance in the guide is the necessity of animal sanctuaries to keep an updated record of all animals in the sanctuaries’ possession.[12] This is essential to ensure the proper transportation, transfer, and care of the animals in critical situations.[13] Fortunately, the detailed emergency procedures set forth by GFAS and individual sanctuaries have allowed retired animals to survive the devastation of the recent natural disasters. Although the gravity of the harm done by the hurricanes and wildfires is still very unclear, many sanctuaries have reported the safety of their animals, with plans to continue normal operations as soon as possible.[14]


[1] Brandon Griggs, Harvey’s Devastating Impact by the Numbers, CNN (Sept. 1, 2017) http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/27/us/harvey-impact-by-the-numbers-trnd/index.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Berkeley Lovelace, Jr., Irma Leaves 6.2 Million Florida Homes in the Dark – Over 60% of the Entire State, CNBC (Sept. 11, 2017) https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/11/hurricane-irma-continues-to-pound-florida-extent-of-damage-not-yet-clear.html.

[4] Chris Alcantara & Denise Lu, Most of Puerto Rico Has Been in the Dark for 34 Days, 16 Hours and 57 Minutes, Wash. Post (last updated Oct. 24, 2017) https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/national/puerto-rico-hurricane-recovery/?utm_term=.ab9eb7b29347.

[5] Reuters, California’s Wildfire Losses are Estimated at Over $1 Billion, Insurance Officials Say, Fortune (Oct. 19, 2017) http://fortune.com/2017/10/19/california-wildfire-losses-insurance-estimates-property/.

[6] Ian Livingston, Displaced Pets from Hurricane Harvey – and now Irma – Need Our Help, Wash. Post (Sept. 7, 2017) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2017/09/07/hurricane-harvey-recovery-continues-and-irmas-just-starting-displaced-pets-need-our-help/?utm_term=.b4336aacc3fc.

[7] Karin Brulliard, How the Chaos of Hurricane Katrina Helped Save Pets from Flooding in Texas, Wash. Post (Aug. 31, 2017) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2017/08/31/how-the-chaos-of-hurricane-katrina-helped-save-pets-from-flooding-in-texas/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.f8e8bd6051ca.

[8] GFAS Accredited Sanctuaries and GFAS Verified Sanctuaries, Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, https://www.sanctuaryfederation.org/gfas/about-gfas/gfas-sanctuaries/#usa (last visited Oct. 24, 2017).

[9] Critical Incident Hurricane and Disaster Plan, Big Cat Rescue, https://bigcatrescue.org/critical-incident-hurricane-and-disaster-plan/ (last visited Oct. 24, 2017).

[10] Id.

[11] Low Impact Exit Strategies, Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (2015) http://www.sanctuaryfederation.org/gfas/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/GFAS-LIES-2015.pdf.

[12] Id. at 6.

[13] Id.

[14] Cathie Anderson, Animal Sanctuary Evacuates as Wine County Fires Continue, The Sacramento Bee (Oct. 14, 2017) http://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/fires/article178962281.html; Irma, Big Cat Rescue (Sept. 14, 2017) https://bigcatrescue.org/irma/.

One comment

  1. Great discussion. I’m curious if regulations at the state or federal level further impact where and how large animals may be moved during natural disasters and similar events? Do these regulations clash with the recommendations listed in the Low Impact Exit Strategies Guide?

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