Pets Suffer in the Aftermath of Natural Disasters

I love my dogs. Like millions of other Americans, my dogs are just as much a part of my family as are my daughters, my husband and my grandchildren. So nothing is more heartbreaking to me than seeing pets and other animals that are injured, abandoned and lost, including those in the wake of severe weather.

The past two years have brought us a slew of such weather -- from Hurricane Sandy that devastated the East Coast to the Denver floods and deadly tornadoes that ripped through both Oklahoma City and Illinois. Whether it happened in our own backyards, or if we watched from afar, the images of the destruction are still hard to shake.

During such horrific disasters, as families scramble to locate one another, assess property damage and brace themselves for what may come next, the safety and wellbeing of pets and animals can be overlooked. And who could blame a family that nearly lost everything, including the lives of family members, for not paying attention to something like that. Indeed, in the wake of such devastation, it happens all too often.

Consider that more than 30 million animals resided in the path of Hurricane Sandy. More than 30,000 of those were lost, abandoned, or injured; many are still unclaimed and living in shelters. And in 2005, Hurricane Katrina left over 250,000 pets stranded and in need of care.

So I was proud and privileged to have been asked to serve as an Ambassador for the American Humane Association and its Red Star Rescue initiative. Just as it has done during all natural disasters and other emergencies that have occurred since its creation in World War I, when it was tasked to care for injured battlefield horses, Red Star was on the ground alongside American Red Cross and other organizations during Sandy and Katrina, not to mention the floods of Colorado, the tornadoes of Oklahoma City, and so many other places torn apart by natural disasters. It maintains a fleet of three tractor-trailer trucks specially outfitted with necessary amenities to provide medical treatment, shelter, rescue, and food for up to 100 animals at any one time. The Red Star trucks are staffed with certified and specially trained responders and not only care for animals in need, but to bring supplies to damaged shelters. Rounding out the program is a fleet of boats and other vehicles that are on-hand to provide veterinary services at a moment's notice.

Still, much more needs to be done to protect and provide medical attention, food, shelter, and love for injured, lost or abandoned animals. I know that animals bring just as much joy to our lives as we bring to theirs. I know that my long-time commitment to animal advocacy has profoundly affected my life for the better.

To be sure, the benefits of having a pet are many. Research studies over the past quarter-century clearly demonstrate that owning a pet provides a multitude of health value. Pets can lower your blood pressure, lessen anxiety, and decrease pain. They ease people out of shyness and social isolation. They help children develop. They provide exercise and companionship. There are even some studies that have shown that heart attack patients who own pets survive longer. And, contrary to popular belief, one researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has conducted studies showing that having a pet in the home can actually lower a child's likelihood of developing related allergies by as much as 33 percent.

Let's not forget the animals that offer service to countless people in need across the country and around the world, such as the dogs that bring such love and joy to the lives of children with cancer and other debilitating illnesses, offer tremendous support and comfort to disabled veterans, work alongside and protect our police and fire professionals and our military, and provide invaluable and life-transforming service to the blind and the deaf. Of course, we can never forget the millions of animals who do critical work on our nation's farms and ranches.

We can also never forget the dogs and cats that are imprisoned and horribly mistreated in puppy mills. It is estimated that there are between two million and four million puppies born in puppy mills each year in the United States. They are treated inhumanely, without any regard for their wellbeing, in wire cages, without proper nutrition and water and little to no veterinary care. And the parent dogs are confined to cages their entire lives, with their only socialization coming from the breeding process. The overwhelming majority of the puppies produced are then shipped to shabbily-run pet stores ill-equipped to provide the proper shelter and care to them or sold over the internet to unsuspecting customers. It has been my privilege to rescue four dogs, but my effort represents just a drop in the bucket.

The New Year is the perfect time of year to be thankful and to look ahead to ways to make the world around us a better place. As I look back on 2013, I am eternally grateful for the first responders, emergency managers and animal protection advocates that make it possible for helpless pets and animals to have another shot at life. And my goal to 2014 is to help encourage and empower others to help in this cause. We should all forever have a paw print in our hearts.