Schools Being Asked to Shelter Pets During Emergencies

Some officials worry about potential risks to students and staff.

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Haunting images of people being forced to leave their pets behind during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have spurred a flurry of activity in Congress and among state and county officials to provide pet-friendly shelters in emergencies. With the arrival of hurricane season, schools are increasingly being asked to help ensure such scenes aren’t repeated, by converting their facilities to pet shelters, but the approach has met with opposition in at least some school districts.

Palm Beach County school board members last month opposed a request by public-safety officials to use the Florida schools as pet shelters during hurricanes and other storms. The opponents say pet dander could get into the schools’ ventilation systems, triggering asthma attacks or other allergic reactions in students or staff members once schools reopened. Board members were also worried about opening the district up to lawsuits, district spokesman Nat Harrington said.

“There are insurmountable problems with having pets in the same building that students would be in just hours after the hurricane’s passing,” he said. “It is very important that schools reopen immediately so students can go back to schools and parents can go to work.”

The county later named the Boynton Recreation Center as a pet-friendly shelter.

Other districts have either already named schools to serve as temporary homes for pets during hurricanes or are looking into such plans. In Florida’s Broward County, pet owners can take their animals to Millennium Middle School. Harrison County, Miss., has named Harrison Central High School as a last-resort shelter for pet owners and their animals. In some parts of Louisiana, efforts are afoot to name schools as pet-friendly shelters.

In the Miami-Dade County, Fla., district, Highland Oaks Middle School will be open exclusively to pet owners and their pets in such an emergency. Joseph Garcia, a spokesman for the district, said the county and the Red Cross will operate the shelters.

“In our mind, the benefit to public safety outweighed the issues that might rise that we might have to deal with afterward,” Mr. Garcia said, adding that district officials were likely to name two more schools as pet-friendly shelters in the near future.

“One needs to only look at Katrina and understand that there is a strong bond between pets and owners,” he said, “and we’d hate it that we were in a position to create a safe haven for them but didn’t do so.”

Legislation Pending

Those involved in animal rescue have tried for a long time to persuade states to mandate pet-friendly shelters, but the impetus came last year after Hurricane Katrina swept the Gulf Coast, leaving thousands of pets stranded and vulnerable. Ultimately, many of them were separated from their owners, never to be reunited, and many perished.

The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, or PETS, which has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is awaiting action in the Senate, would require state and local agencies to include household pets and service animals in preparedness plans. Counties that did not comply would risk losing all federal aid for disasters.

While a variety of facilities are used as pet-friendly shelters, schools can be especially desirable because of the convenience they offer for housing both pets and their owners, said Debra Parsons-Drake, the director of disaster sheltering for the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States. People are typically sheltered in gyms, while animals can be kept in the locker rooms next to the gym, she said. Also, locker rooms can be cleaned more easily because they are already set up for sanitation, she said.

Ms. Parsons-Drake said the possibility of pet dander spreading through the school would arise only if the animals were brushed or groomed—something unlikely to occur under shelter conditions.

“I have been in some of these schools after they were cleaned up, and the pet areas are cleaner than human areas,” she maintained.

Convenient Settings

Animal-rescue workers who have helped arrange such shelters say setting up and dismantling them takes just a few hours and causes no inconvenience to the schools.

In Marion County, Fla., which opened a pet-friendly shelter at Vanguard High School in Ocala in 2004, Jill Lancon, the director of the county animal center, helped set up a temporary shelter that has already been used three times since.

She said it takes six to eight hours to set up. Pets are crated and kept in a 140-foot hallway with the walls covered in plastic on a nonslip floor. Large fans blow the air out through the doorways. People are required to take care of their own pets, and must provide all their food and supplies.

When the shelter closes after a storm has passed, all crates are removed and cleaned in an area away from the school. “We roll all the plastic up and throw it in a dumpster, and the building no longer has any animal odor,” Ms. Lancon said.

Jake Russell, the principal of Sickles High School in Tampa, Fla., which has been named as a pet-friendly shelter, said the school itself would have no involvement in actually running the shelter, which would be entirely up to the Red Cross and Hillsborough County officials.

He said he wasn’t worried that harboring pets would keep the school from opening the day after a storm, in part because other factors, such as fallen trees and flooded roads, would likely be more significant. “If it was a direct hit,” he said, “we wouldn’t open the next day anyway.”

PHOTO: Michele Budde of Coral Springs, Fla., prepares to place her poodle, Stanley, in one of the pet carriers set up in a temporary shelter at Millennium Middle School in Tamarac, Fla., before Hurricane Katrina. The school was the first in the Broward County district to accept pets.
—File photo by Lily Echeverria/Miami Herald/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 42, Pages 14-15

Published in Print: July 12, 2006, as Schools Being Asked to Shelter Pets During Emergencies
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