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Pets Should Be Evacuated, Too

It's time for the State Department to permanently change its policy to allow all members of U.S. citizens' families -- no matter how many legs they have -- to evacuate together when disaster strikes.
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PETA's Ashley Fruno has been working in Sendai and the surrounding areas since the first flight into Tokyo after the tsunami. She is helping people who wouldn't go into shelters there because they can't take their animals and their animals are family to them. Stories of reunions abound. One man let his dog, Shane, out of the house, then ran to warn neighbors of the approaching tsunami. Before Shane's "dad" could return, the wave came crashing in. He feared that Shane was lost forever. A few days ago, Shane showed up, both elbows cut and bruised, at a school he had never been to before: the same school where his guardian was now living.

Most Americans, like most Japanese, view their dogs, cats, and other animal companions as family members, and rightly so. Yet, the U.S. State Department is tearing apart families by forcing U.S. citizens who are evacuating the crises in Japan, Libya, and Bahrain to leave behind their dogs and cats. I thought that we had overcome that callous mindset after the nightmares of children being forcibly separated from their dogs and cats by the National Guard after Hurricane Katrina, but I was wrong.

When riots broke out in Egypt last month, U.S. evacuees faced the agonizing choice between flying home to safety -- which meant leaving their animals to likely suffer and die in a hostile environment, alone and scared -- or staying behind and risking their own lives to remain with their beloved companions. Why would we do that to them? Only after PETA alerted our members and repeatedly urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to allow animals on U.S. government-chartered evacuation flights were some animals finally allowed on the last flight out of Egypt -- if they were small enough to fit in a carrier under an airplane seat. Too bad, Lassie, you'd have to eat dirt and dodge petrol bombs.

U.K. citizens fleeing the Middle East and Japan have been allowed to take their animal companions with them on evacuation flights. The U.S. is not so civilized, and that's a blot on our national copybook. Obviously, the Department of State's policy against evacuating animals in crises puts both animals and the people who care about them in peril. In summarizing the lessons learned after the Hurricane Katrina rescue and relief efforts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that "... a lack of plans and resources to evacuate 'incidental' pets with their owners has been known for decades to be a primary reason why citizens will refuse to evacuate in the face of imminent life-threatening danger."

Animals aren't any better equipped to survive an emergency than humans are. Few people missed the fact that after Hurricane Katrina, people died because buses and emergency shelters wouldn't allow their animals. Dogs and cats whose guardians abandoned them, sometimes at gunpoint, to "fend for themselves" slowly wasted away, terrified and delirious from dehydration or reeling from the pain of broken bones and infected wounds. Many once-beloved animals were shot dead in the streets by authorities. PETA's team of rescuers who were in the muck and grime, pried open house doors and padlocked gates only to find, in many cases, animals' carcasses.

It was years ago that we first heard a president talk about a kinder, gentler nation, so why would it still be just that -- talk? Isn't it time to protect the most vulnerable members of our citizens' families? We've lived through enough disasters in recent years to know the devastation that results when evacuation policies force family members apart. It's time for the State Department to permanently change its official policy to allow all members of U.S. citizens' families -- no matter what size they are or how many legs they have -- to evacuate together when disaster strikes. Please, contact the State Department and raise hell.

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