Cape May County is planning to better accommodate pets during future emergencies by expanding its ability to shelter animal evacuees.
In the past, there were no public shelters in the county and none designated outside the county where residents could take their pets during an emergency, so some people chose not to leave at all.
To remedy the situation, the county acquired two trailers with generators and about 35 cages each to temporarily house animals. They received them a month before Hurricane Sandy hit, and both were almost full during the height of the storm.
County Emergency Management Coordinator Marty Pagliughi said having those shelters available encouraged more people to leave their homes as the storm bore down on the coast.
“We had people calling and asking if shelters were pet-friendly,” he said. “Chances are they would not have evacuated if it were not for that option.”
Pagliughi, who is mayor of Avalon, introduced the idea of a mobile pet shelter to the county in June, when his municipality retrofitted a trailer with 70 cages, wash basins, veterinary work stations and other amenities that would allow for holding as many as 100 animals for two weeks.
That shelter was also used during Sandy. It was trucked to the Cumberland County Vocational and Technical School in Bridgeton, where it sat adjacent to the shelter to accommodate evacuees with pets. The county took its pet trailers to shelters in Upper Township and Lower Township.
Officials said many emergency shelters are not pet-friendly because it is complicated and expensive enough to operate one without the added problems and liabilities associated with animals. Evacuees with allergies need to be protected, for example.
In Atlantic County, the Buena Regional High School and Middle School accepted pets along with their owners, as did Pinelands Regional High School in Ocean County. Many other shelters did not.
Even fewer hotels and motels were willing to accommodate pets, so, when faced with the choice of whether to stay or leave a pet behind, many people opted to stay behind with their animals, officials said.
Some regular animal shelters were able to take in pets as part of their normal boarding operations, but few had space for the volume generated by a mass evacuation.
Dr. Nick Holland, co-owner of Shore Veterinarians, with locations in Upper Township, Egg Harbor Township and Hammonton, said his location in Seaville was able to accept a few large dogs that could not be housed elsewhere.
Holland said he thought trailers were a good way to start addressing the situation.
“It’s a huge problem, because there are a lot of animals out there,” he said.
Pagliughi said the county plans to acquire more trailers in anticipation of more people heeding future evacuation orders.
“We know we did not have that high of an evacuation rate,” Pagliughi said of Hurricane Sandy. “Next time, I think we’re going to have twice as many people. And with more people there are going to be more pets.”
The shelters will not be used only during major storms, though.
Avalon, for instance, invested in its trailer in 2010 after successive blizzards knocked out power on the island. The borough housed people and pets during the emergency, but it was far from a comfortable situation.
Mobile shelters could be used in similar situations in the future, Pagliughi said, although he hopes they ultimately get little use.
“We really hope it’s calm for a little while,” he said.
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