Natural disasters magnify the conflicted decisions that are made despite the human-animal bond

In the hours since Hurricane Irma made landfall, I've read a couple of articles that have been circulating on social media about the pets that were left behind by their humans to fend for themselves. Left in enclosures, chained outside—even chained to cars. There has been so much in the way of commenting, knee-jerk reactions, armchair-ing and demonizing by well-meaning people.

But when I read things like this, I can't help but be reminded of how, when a Very Big Crisis occurs, humans often lack the resources that they need to not to only cope, but survive the upheaval of a traumatic event. Resources that are beyond financial. And in the event of an evacuation for a hurricane—having to leave one's core source of safety and stability and wholeness, their home—resources that are barely sufficient to keep themselves safe and sane. People often have to seek refuge in places that are hardly enough to sustain them, let alone their pets: a family member or friend's home, a temporary shelter, or in some cases, goodness knows where. 

When people are forced into that kind of situation, they often feel understandably conflicted and cornered, that they have no other choice but to make decisions that are less-than-ideal.

This is no Pollyanna-tinged point of view, no excusing the choice, but an explanation. An explanation of feeling powerless, frightened and the limbic brain taking over because this is very much a fight or flight alternative, and yes, our objectivity and compassion and are easily eroded when that's the case. This is the ugly part of our humanness.

How do I know this? Because I see it everyday in my work. In the trenches of pet sitting and animal hospice. Yes, it can be impossibly ugly and difficult to be witness to, but not for the reasons you think. 

The ugly, amplified view of everyday 

I see people make unfortunate decisions every day that in ordinary circumstances they'd never otherwise consider, only because they lack resources to do better. And believe me, that's not lost on them. These situations run the gambit, and sometimes they lead to outcomes that no one, including the family, wants to see.

One example that comes to mind are the folks that I encounter who can't bring themselves to get their pet to the vet for an assessment when I first gently declare that I'm seeing significant changes in their pet's health, then need to gradually be more urgent as the weeks or days tick by, my quiet moral support steady all the while. Time that passes by as the pet receives inadequate, misguided or no palliation at all for a clearly terminal illness that they likely won't weather the way they deserve to, nor be euthanized for in a timely or peaceful manner. 

Why? Because as I've seen time and time again, 'getting there' mentally, admitting to ourselves that there's something serious going on that will take our pet away from us—the one constant that is there, the one tether to normalcy that we might have, yeah, that—is so mind-bending that we shut down. We avoid it. If we avoid it, it's not happening. ['It will be okay…'] The truth is that we have only so much space, so much bandwidth for crisis, to be fully engaged in crisis-mode, and our brains are designed to operate that way. And when we have low resources to start with—varying degrees of the always stigmatizing mental illness, anxiety, financial instability, little or no outside resources, existing crises—we have far less bandwidth. We go into survival mode, a state of being with inherently very narrow margins. 

Yes, this what happens, the kind of thing we on the fringes of the situation prefer to ignore. 

But you know what? I don't judge people in that space. I can't. All I can do is try to help empower these humans that are doing their highest to have access to resources if possible and make the best choices that they can. And when they can't, I do my best to support them through the glaring clarity of hindsight that rears its head.

This is happening everyday, all around us, these decisions that are made. The choices that leave people grappling with knowing what they have to work with leaves them feeling terrible, and yes, internally judging themselves. Though it might not seem like it, the mental paralysis of doing nothing when a pet is terminally ill, hoping all will work out fine—they aren't going to die, they can't, I need them, everything in my life is Hell—and a family deciding to leave their pets behind during an impending hurricane because they feel no choice and wishing for the best is very much sourced from the same place in our psyches. 

It's people, just trying to cope as best they can, given the set of circumstances before them. But, hurricane fare is more compelling, right? 

So, the truth is that we don't know the stories, the families behind the gripping, heart wrenching photographs of dogs chained to trees, confined in enclosures outdoors, left behind. I have a hard time imagining that these humans were looking for an opportunity to be cruel to their pets, goodness knows there are lot of ways to do that on a regular basis. I'll wager they wouldn't be that seemingly cruel on any other day than on the one that they have to flee for safety from a tropical cyclone.

Think about that: chaining your dog to a car. 

What does that say to you? What it screams, begs to have to me hear is that 'I was desperate and I couldn't make another choice. Look what I had to do. I felt like it was the best chance, a proverbial red flag, to perhaps have someone help them when I couldn't.' 

What we do need to remember is that in the 12-year wake of Hurricane Katrina, we know better, and are doing more to accommodate families with pets in the event of a natural disaster, but we've still a long way to go. In the days leading up to Hurricane Irma, I heard plenty of chatter about the lack of resources for the thousands of families who needed to relocate with their pets temporarily, so that is, in my opinion, telling of why some families made the choice that they did. The choice to leave their pets behind. One that as I understand it, they'll be prosecuted for. 

We judge people for staying put in the event of a hurricane, which they often do because they lack resources like a place to go, money or reliable transportation to get far enough from harm's way. Or, though they won't admit it to others, but they don't want to leave their pets. We judge them more harshly for evacuating like they've been directed, but leave their pets because those family members are not welcome, allowed or valued as much by others as their human counterparts. I propose that instead of judgement, we look with at situations like this with the clarity they deserve and create an environment of cooperation, support and caring so that families don't need to be backed into this corner.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been featured guest on the Community Cats Podcast, talking about how experienced pet sitters can be a valuable asset for families with pets, as well as in the animal rescue, veterinary and animal hospice communities. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter

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