Channeling efforts to help animals after a disaster


It's common wisdom that disasters bring out the worst and the best in people. The same can be said of animals.

While some will be relatively untouched by the stress, in others the changes can be dramatic. Friendly animals may be too scared to come when called. Gentle animals may become fear-biters.

Such unpredictability is a reason why some disaster-relief experts say the one thing animal-lovers shouldn't do is try to help animals directly in a time of crisis.

"If you want to help, make sure you're channeling your efforts properly," said Eric Sakach of the Humane Society of the United States. "Going into a disaster area isn't a good idea. For one thing, it can be dangerous. For another, when pets are lost, people are going to be trying to locate them through shelter agencies. If someone's just picking up animals and taking them home, there's a reduced chance of reuniting pets with their owners."

Mr. Sakach helps shelters develop disaster plans and has helped coordinate disaster relief to animals on many occasions. He suggests that anyone with something to donate -- whether it's material or time -- contact the local shelter and let them know.

Marilee Geyer knows the drill. She was a volunteer at the Santa Cruz Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit Northern California; today, she serves as the group's director of education.

"I spent my time after the earthquake unloading a truckload of pet food and delivering it throughout the county," she said. "We had a lot of food donated, and we delivered it to veterinarians for people to pick up, and also had plenty on hand at the shelter."

The Santa Cruz SPCA hit the ground running after the quake. Within days, staffers were handing out "want lists" to anyone interested in helping. At the top was money.

"Disasters are never cheap," said Mr. Sakach. "There are programs to help businesses and people get back on their feet, but that doesn't help animal agencies much, and they end up footing the bill for their rescue efforts. Money is always helpful.

"Beyond that, anything you can think of that covers the basic needs of animals -- and people, too -- is probably needed," he said. "If you coordinate with the agencies and it's safe, you could even help by bringing coffee and doughnuts, or sandwiches, out to rescue workers."

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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