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Preparing for Disaster

Be ready to save your animals if danger strikes

Nadine Gill

In recent times my small New Jersey town has experienced hurricanes, heat waves and a major flood that resulted in residents losing electricity and/or phone service for days. Unprepared neighbors were, in some cases, forced to leave pets behind when evacuated by emergency personnel. An unexpected flood in September of 1999, washed through homes, businesses and every government building, leaving our town a federal disaster area. The river had crested in the middle of the night, taking many by surprise, and gave ill-prepared pet owners little time to take the necessary steps to protect their pets.

Such experiences remind us of how very vulnerable our animals can be when we fail to prepare for situations that can arise without warning. We need to think ahead and be able to provide the necessary environmental conditions for our pets in an emergency, to be able quickly evacuate them if conditions require it, or to best secure their safety if forced to leave them behind.

Many emergencies may only result in a loss of power, but even a simple power outage without any additional dangers can be devastating to anyone with reptiles, particularly keepers of more temperature-sensitive species. In this situation, a good generator can help to maintain necessary environmental conditions for your animals and eliminate the need for evacuation. This is certainly the best option for the animals. The stress of being removed from accustomed surroundings and the consequent changes in temperature, lighting and diet can result in illness, particularly for those species with very specific environmental requirements.

Itís not enough, however, to just have a generator Ė you need to know how to operate it in advance and test it on a regular basis. A generator will do your animals little good if you arenít able to start it when that unexpected emergency arises! Learn how to operate it safely, and like other emergency equipment Ė test it on a regular schedule.

Generators come in all shapes and sizes. Most smaller models run off gasoline. Larger models tend to run on diesel fuel. The most important thing to know about generators, however, is that any given model will only produce so much power. It is no use expecting a small generator to provide sufficient power to keep your house lighting running normally, keep your refrigerator working, and have power left over to heat a dozen tortoise enclosures! Unfortunately, many smaller generators will only produce sufficient power to run a few low-wattage light bulbs. Such a generator, however, should certainly be adequate to run your egg incubator in an emergency situation.

To run several basking lamps and possibly some background-heating units, you will require a fairly large generator. The main drawback here is size and cost. In order to select the correct generator for your needs, you should add up the wattage of all the lights and other equipment that would be run from it in an emergency. The wattage of appliances is almost always indicated on a label somewhere, or in the ownerís manual. Take a note of the total wattage and consult with a company specializing in small to medium-sized generators for their advice on choosing a suitable model.

Good planning of heating systems can reduce the need for vast amounts of electrical power in an emergency. At the Tortoise Trust, for example, the main heating system in the animal houses is based upon an oil-fired central-heating furnace. Normally, the ignition system and circulating pumps are powered by the normal household supply, but because these components only require a few watts to operate, they are easily powered from a small gasoline generator in an emergency. In this installation, then, full background heating can be maintained even though the generator itself is one of the smallest available.

You never know when evacuation may be called for, so it is best to always have a reliable car battery, and to keep your vehicle and tires in good condition. If a situation requires you to evacuate with your animals, you need to avoid the possibility of a breakdown. A good spare tire, jack, jumper cables and any needed emergency supplies should be kept in the car as a general practice.

Emergencies may be the result of severe weather conditions, but they can also occur in the house itself. A fire can start at anytime, and a fire extinguisher should be kept in the kitchen, and any room that has the potential of catching fire. Keep them handy and test them regularly. In addition, always install and properly maintain smoke detector alarms throughout the building. Check their batteries regularly. Unlike an approaching storm where you may have some time to prepare, a fire doesnít offer that luxury. An automatic sprinkler system can provide additional protection, particularly for large collections that may not be quickly evacuated.

A broken water main can quickly flood a basement and put animals at risk of drowning, or even electrocution if the water comes in contact with power cords and outlets. Circuit breakers provide additional protection against such electrical hazards.

Whatever the cause for the emergency, you need to be able to get your family and your animals out quickly when it becomes necessary to leave your home. Thatís why you and any family members should create an emergency plan that you can practice in advance. As in any emergency, you donít want to wonder where individual family members are, or if anyone took the tortoises or turtles to safety.  Such confusion in a crisis can be life threatening for the animals and the people trying to rescue them.

Time is of the essence in these situations, and in the event that you do need to evacuate your home, having a good emergency plan is the best way to protect you, your family and your pets. The following guidelines may help.

If at all possible, take your pets with you. Some emergencies may keep you from getting back to your home for a longer period than you imagine. Having everything they need in an emergency kit, ready to go, will save time, and insure that you donít forget to pack important items.

Include a container to hold each turtle or tortoise, a supply of drinking water, food and water containers and anything that they would need to be temporarily housed. Small clamp-on light fixtures are easy to attach to portable containers and can help provide heat. If these are not available, some electrical heat pads can provide extra warmth. Donít forget to pack one or more multi-plug adapters and extension cords, as the wall outlets in a motel or friendís house may be limited. Also be sure to include health and ownership records and any permits.

Many emergency shelters do not allow pets, so check with local hotels, and ask about pet policies in an emergency Ė particularly if you have a dog or cat as well. You should know in advance where you would be able to stay with them, or who would be willing to keep your animals until you return home. Remember to have care instructions for each animal. Attaching a photo can be very helpful to someone offering temporary care, and will allow them to identify individuals when there is more than one animal.

If you have no other choice than to leave your pets behind, clearly post a notice stating where the animals are at the entrance of your home, so rescue workers will know where to look. Have care instructions clearly posted for each animal as well. Include contact information for someone who knows how to provide appropriate care, and add your own contact information as well.

Communication is often a problem during an emergency. Mobile/cell phones and/or a beeper can allow you be contacted in such circumstances and are highly recommended. When local phone service is down, you may have to travel to find an operational pay phone, so have a supply of change and/or a phone card with you as well. If your animals are rescued from the house, photos, ownership records and any permits will allow you to provide identification of your pets, and to prove ownership and verify your right to have any that are restricted species.

Sometimes the emergency that arises is a personal one that simply keeps you from getting home. An accident, sudden illness or even car trouble can delay your return. Itís always a good idea to have someone who would be willing and able to take care of the animals in your absence. Carry this number in your wallet so you can call them when youíre away from home, and keep the number with instructions to call that individual, along with those of family members if you were unable to make the call yourself.

Having lived in areas that can and do experience severe weather, over the years, I have lived through floods, hurricanes, blizzards and the loss of services that goes with them. In years past, I never thought much about it, but now with reptiles, particularly the large and tropical species I keep, I no longer have such a cavalier approach. Taking the time to plan for emergency situations will provide your pets with the protection they need, and you with the peace of mind that comes with knowing youíre prepared for them.