Woof! Pet-Friendly Shelters Comfort Evacuees

by Patricia Kemp, Red Cross volunteer

For residents evacuated to Middletown Middle School during the Mendocino Complex Fire, the barking and meows of more than 100 of their furry family members were anything but annoying. In fact, they were downright comforting.

At the peak of evacuations, animals sheltered on the school’s campus outnumbered people by 2-to-1. More than 70 people and 140 pets stayed in the gym or camped in tents on the athletic field.

Ben Hodgen fled his home in Lucerne along with the family’s four-month-old puppy, Fatboy.

“I didn’t want to leave anyone behind,” he said.

Fatboy slept for eight nights in a crate next to Ben’s son, Benjamin Jr.  One woman brought 15 cats. A guinea pig, rabbits, birds, and a hamster were also among the evacuees in several other shelters around Clear Lake.

The gym started out a little noisy, said Red Cross volunteer Jeanie Knowles from Oregon, who helped residents and their pets settle into their temporary quarters in Middletown. But after a day or two, she noticed a relaxation around the facility where large Pit Bulls co-mingled with pint-sized Chihuahuas.

“People were calmer,” she said. “Grannies were cuddling their cats. One guy even crawled halfway in the crate to be closer to his dog.”

Pets served as an icebreaker, bringing people closer together to chat about their common love of animals.

“They really bonded as a group,” Jeanie said. “They would walk their dogs together. People like it when someone compliments their pet and wanted to talk about it.”

Establishing rules helped keep order. Animals had to be on leashes or in crates and could not be unattended. Owners were willing to obey if that meant their pet could stay by their side until evacuations were lifted.

Community members rallied to support relief efforts. Animal rescue groups donated leashes, crates, and food. Local veterinarians stopped by for well-being checks.

Having pets close also eased anxiety for owners who knew they were out of harm’s way. Jeanie said at least four families told her they only came to the shelter because their pet was allowed. The pet-friendly shelters let people focus on the human services available: meals, relief supplies, health services and emotional support, and can access other critical resources and information.

Animals simultaneously distracted from the crisis outside, where the largest wildfire in California was burning. Pet owners fell into a routine of daily walks and ensuring they were fed.

“People had a focus, a purpose,” she said. “Taking care of their pet made them feel better.”

Animals have a calming effect on people, according to Dr. Michael Jacobs, a retired internist from the Bay Area and volunteer with HOPE-Animal Assisted Crisis Response organization. Dr. Jacobs and his four-year-old white Labrador, Molly, a trained crisis response dog, visited the Local Assistance Center at the Alpine Senior Center in Lucerne.

Dr. Jacobs said the act of petting animals releases oxytocin, a hormone in humans that reduces stress.  Between meeting with various disaster recovery agencies, people would stop and pet Molly.

“She’s sensitive to people,” he said. “She’s like an emotional sponge.”