A few years ago, I watched the documentary MINE, a film that followed several pets through the adoption process in the months after Hurricane Katrina. The film brings up the ethical obligations that some take for granted: that many pets found after natural disasters are actually owned pets, and that while every attempt should be made to reunite them with their owners, many groups, intending to help displaced and unidentified animals, adopt these animals out to new homes without a moment’s hesitation. After all, many people were willing to open their homes to these refugee animals in a time of national crisis, and shelters were full. Sadly, it was often assumed that pets were abandoned willingly, but, as the film shows, that assumption was painfully wrong.
One day, as the peak of Hurricane Irma was wreaking havoc some hundreds of miles away, I was entering the local animal shelter to pick up a foster kitten. In the parking lot, I passed a group of staff and volunteers loading crates and supplies into a van, and overheard one say to another, “Because you know, everyone wants a hurricane dog.” The bitter tone in her voice was not unfamiliar to me, the burnout and fatigue a shelter worker feels when she brings in new adoptables as local pets are overlooked is very real.
What concerned me more was how a shelter in Ohio was already planning to adopt out pets brought in from several states away while men and women were still in the throes of survival for their own lives. People were in shelters, sleeping in hotel hallways, driving to safer grounds, and had not yet had a chance to look for a lost pet. Some of these pets may have been in shelters before the hurricanes and had yet to be located, while others may have been lost during the event.
It’s a terrible dilemma. On one hand, finding homeless pets safe and comfortable “forever” homes is what animal welfare is all about. On the other hand, it’s clear that not all shelters and agencies have fully figured out how to go about the reunion process.
Ultimately, until the shelter system can become more integrated, and lost and found programs become universalized, the best way for pet owners to optimize the chance of a reunion comes down to one small thing: a microchip.
If the pet becomes lost during any sort of crisis (natural disaster, fire, riot, you name it) there is a strong chance it will not be picked up and housed in a local shelter. Rather than trying to find your pet out of thousands, a microchip is a permanent means of keeping your contact information with your pet in a universally-readable way. Furthermore, most chip companies allow you to provide additional contact information or urgent data on your pet’s record. So why not include your vet’s info as well as your cell phone, or the contact info for the shelter that you got your pet from? This provides an additional means of contact, and a chance that someone in a position to help might be able to get your pet one step closer to you.
Fortunately, many shelters have learned from the mistakes made during Katrina and reunion centers are popping up in times of crisis, but without proper and secure ID in the form of a tag, chip or tattoo, it’s much harder to bring about happy endings.