September 8, 2011

When It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

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I was reading the news before Hurricane Irene hit the east coast and I stumbled on an article about Rikers Island. Apparently, all of the little islands surrounding New York City were categorized in the city’s evacuation plan as either Zone A (mandatory evacuation) or Zone B (warning of flooding in a moderate hurricane). Rikers Island, a prison with at least 12,000 inmates (including juveniles and pre-trial detainees) built on a landfill, was not placed into any zone at all. According to a New York Times blog, there is not even an evacuation plan in place for the prison. This got me thinking about the animal shelters. I don’t want to equate animal shelters to human prisons. The purpose of an animal shelter is, ideally, not to punish the animals but to dramatically improve their quality of life. I think that the animal shelters in this country do amazing work under tough conditions. I spent a semester in the city of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, where there are parks with upwards of 100 stray cats yet there is not a single shelter in the city. In the United States, local shelters receive no centralized funding (either from the government or from national groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or the Humane Society of the United States) but are still up and running, saving as many animals as they can. The only similarity I want to draw between shelters and prisons is that they both involve large numbers of residents without homes they are able to go to in times of crisis, and have a proportionately small staff trying to look after all of them.So what do the shelters do during natural disasters? It turns out that the animals are not hung out to dry like the prisoners are. In the case of Irene, state, local and non-profit groups banded together to put emergency response plans into action. Shelters in the evacuation zones were cleared out, with most of the animals being squeezed in to shelters elsewhere or to emergency shelters that had been set up specifically for the hurricane. Groups of volunteers scoured the streets looking for lost or stray animals and brought them to safety. Several human shelters opened to accept animals as well so that owners did not have to face the choice of leaving their pets in danger. The National Guard in Egg Harbor, New Jersey even took part in moving animals temporarily housed at a racetrack back to their permanent shelter in Pleasantville. Stories like these are everywhere, even in relation to more serious natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti. There are several protocols in place at both non-profit and governmental agencies to assist with animal rescue and to help people with pets leave danger zones safely. Plus 600 points for you, humanity. And then minus another 600 for the prisons.How does all of this relate to life in veterinary school? Well, I lost my cat last weekend … the door blew open in the middle of the night and when I woke up she was gone. With the help of some friends and neighbors, we found her after an hour of searching and she was none the worse for her little adventure, but I was absolutely frantic — I am not at all rational when it comes to the care of my own animals. Fortunately this was on the one day that it didn’t rain, but even a little rain could have dramatically changed the outcome of my story. Also, I went to a meeting of the shelter medicine club, which is where I learned a lot of the information in this column. For those of you interested in vet school, the extracurricular opportunities are amazing. Remember walking around ClubFest freshman year hoping to find any type of club relating to animals? I even signed up for Roots and Shoots, thinking, “helping the environment is almost like working with animals!” Well in vet school, almost all of the clubs are animal-related. It’s like a ClubFeast.I don’t think shelter medicine is where I’m going to eventually end up (though the first time I visited India when I was seven years old, I was so impacted by the malnourished homeless animals wandering around that I swore I would open a shelter there one day). Shelter medicine operates on a principle of “herd health,” where the health of the entire population is more important than the health of an individual, and I would like to focus on individuals. But I do think the people who run shelters are superheros, not only because of the amazing efforts they go through to save the animals in natural disasters, but also because of the hurdles they have to manage on a daily basis. So the next time you wonder if you should get your fourth latte of the day or not, maybe you could decaffeinate yourself and give the money to your local shelter instead.

Nikhita Parandekar ’11 is a first-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at nparandekar@cornellsun.com. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Nikhita Parandekar