As Hurricane Irma raged, many fled. In the process, many animals were left behind despite the fact that FEMA supports the evacuation of pets. Even more shockingly, reports show that over 50 animals were left defenseless, tethered to trees.

Rescuers hurry to save dozens of trapped animals as winds pick up

On Saturday, as Hurricane Irma passed over Cuba and headed toward the Florida Keys, Sam Smink, an investigative reporter for WPTV, the NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, Florida began tweeting. Incredibly, people had left their pets behind. And not only were they left behind, they were left tethered to trees, leaving them to face the wrath of the hurricane with no means to escape. Luckily, rescuers took pity on the frightened animals, bringing them into a shelter.

County Director of Animal Care vows to prosecute careless and abusive animal owners

In an interview with Smink, County Director of Animal Care Diane Suave described the heartbreaking situation. At the time of her interview, 49 dogs and two cats had already been rescued.

“It’s absolutely illegal,” Suave said of the situation, adding that Palm Beach ordinances prohibit pet owners from chaining or tethering their dogs and leaving them unattended. “When you are doing this in the face of such a devastating storm, this is absolutely felony animal cruelty. It’s deliberate, it’s intentional, and we will prosecute people for this.”

It isn’t just the rain that poses threats to animals left in these conditions. Wind can knock over trees and other large objects, and even small flying objects can do real damage at high speeds.

“So residents need to be reminded, there’s no excuse for this,” Suave said. “We have a pet friendly shelter. Pets, humans, they’re welcome there.”

Most importantly, Suave questioned how pet owners could think of leaving their pets chained or tethered in the wake of such a devastating storm.

“Ask yourself, ‘is this part of my family?'” Suave advised. “If it’s not, then maybe you shouldn’t have pets.”

Animal rescuers continued to respond to calls while weather conditions were stable on Saturday. However, as the wind speed increased, rescuers had to take shelter, leaving some animals stranded.

Animals should not, and don’t need to be, left behind during a disaster

All of these reports are truly incredible, especially given FEMA’s own stance on animals:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) emphasize that during emergency evacuations, leaving pets should be an absolute last resort and encourage owners of pets and livestock to learn about which shelters allow animals during emergencies.

During a disaster, there are many options for pet owners – leaving a pet behind, especially tethered or caged, should never be one of them.

Steps to protect animals during a disaster

FEMA has an informational video offering pet owners guidance on what to do in case of an emergency:

  1. Plan ahead as much as possible. Find a place where you can take your animal by looking for pet-friendly hotels, contacting friends and relatives, or organizations that specialize in animals such as veterinarians, boarding houses, and shelters.
  2. Make sure your pets have some form of identification and contact information in case you get separated.
  3. Make an animal rescue kit with food, water, and toys that you can easily grab if you need to leave.
  4. Familiarize your pets with carrying crates or cages to make transportation more comfortable and easier.

You should never feel like you need to leave your pet behind during a disaster. For more detailed information about preparing for a disaster with a pet or larger farm animals, see FEMA’s plan for pets.