Increasing the Disaster Resilience of People and Animals
Humans and companion animals can form incredibly strong bonds that last a lifetime, characterized by a very complex interdependence. Nowhere is this more visible than during extreme circumstances, such as times of natural disasters, when people will often risk their lives to save their pets. Some people may view this attachment as a negative – a risk factor that prevents humans from putting themselves first, and therefore placing them in further danger. However, other people have recognized that the bond between humans and their companion animals could work as a positive – a motivational force, that convinces people to better prepare for disasters, or to consider other preventative options, such as early evacuation.
Of course, some humans are more vulnerable than others to the effects of natural disasters. Remoteness, mobility, age, language, and income can all be factors that contribute to a person’s ability to survive a disaster. An Australian study sought to ascertain how animal attachment fits into this matrix. The researchers looked at five groups “commonly described as ‘vulnerable’: Indigenous Australians, culturally and linguistically diverse communities (CALD), children and youth, the elderly and people with disabilities.” They also noted that the homeless and people with mental health issues are considered to be vulnerable people who may or may not be included in the above groups. The researchers wanted to see if they could increase the disaster resilience of the people in these groups through their attachment to their non-human companions, and discover the best engagement strategies for this.
This is not the first time that studies have found that “piggybacking” messages can lead to positive results for both humans and animals. The researchers of this study note that, in the past, this has been done with some degree of success in relation to “the promotion of dog walking as a public health strategy to increase human activity.” It’s a form of opportunistic messaging that ultimately benefits the humans and animals. In the case of disaster preparedness and resilience, there are numerous ways to incorporate this strategy into existing animal-related motivations, literature, activities, and social networks.
The authors underline that “attachment theory” is a major player in their research. They believe that companion animal relationships have four important dynamics for humans that could contribute to disaster resilience:
(1) Proximity maintenance—they are sought out and available in times of need;
(2) Safe haven—they offer protection and support to relieve distress;
(3) Secure base—they act as a reliable presence that facilitates and permits risk-taking and exploration; and
(4) Separation distress—prompted by separation from or actual loss of the figure.
Threats to any of these criteria, whether the danger is real or symbolic, can trigger an attachment strategy in humans that seeks to bring about circumstances to rectify the situation. Though companion animals can be important to vulnerable people for a variety of reasons, their situation can make feelings of dependency more profound. To put it another way, the animal “provide[s] companionship, security, practical assistance and the social capital that counters loneliness and social isolation.”
The researchers then go on to describe various ways that a companion animal relationship could influence the human in a disaster situation. Among the list the authors note:
- Perception and recognition of disasters. For example, assistance animals can help in alerting older people to sirens or other emergency warnings.
- Evacuation decisions. For example, homeless people may refuse shelters if they cannot be accompanied by their animals.
- Evacuation behavior. For example, separation from animals can immobilize owners with disability.
- Evacuation experience. For example, separation from animals can exacerbate the social anxiety of those with mental health issues, whilst the presence of animals in shelters may induce anxiety in some CALD people.
With these aspects in mind, as well as countless other ways that human-animal dynamics could play an important role, the researchers highlight a series of concrete ways that companion animals could be incorporated into disaster preparedness plans. They list a number of programs specific to Australia which provide pet health clinics and free veterinary services, as well as food and emergency shelter for animals. These programs, alongside many others, could share information about disaster preparedness, and help vulnerable populations that may otherwise not be supported.
For advocates around the world, this study shows how human and animal issues can intersect, and how addressing the problem for one species can clearly benefit the other. It describes positive ways that both companion animals and vulnerable humans can be helped in the most dire situations. Many animal advocates will remember that when Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S., the lack of preparedness, resources, and support for people’s companion animals meant that many refused to leave their homes and died as a result. This study helps us to look at the positive actions that we can take now to build support networks, promote understanding, and develop appropriate resources, so that we can ensure that people and their animals can survive future emergencies.