Saturday, December 1, 2007




In recent months San Diego and its surrounding counties fell victim to a series of wildfires. Fueled by warm Santa Ana winds and overly dry environmental conditions, the blazes spread with terrifying quickness, consuming homes and displacing thousands of people. Thanks to the heroic efforts of our firefighting personnel the fires were eventually contained, but not before more than 360,000 acres had been burned and 1,400 homes destroyed. Though only 14 deaths were reported by the medical examiner, 556,000 people were forced to evacuate, and as of this writing, only 50,000 of those have been able to return to their homes. As 2007 ends and the new year begins, San Diego County is still in recovery and response mode.

Animals in Focus

Since the human element of this tragedy has been adequately covered elsewhere, for this release we would like to focus on the plight of the effected pets. In times of crises, it is deceptively easy to overlook the animal companions who are also victimized by disasters; the slew of pets lost and abandoned in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina serves as a grim example. Thankfully, most San Diego County residents were more conscientious about the emergency care of their animal companions, and by comparison incidences of abandoned pets were few and far between. The Department of Animal Services (DAS) reported only 44 burned cats and dogs, most of whom received medical care at the three DAS shelter hospital. While those with more severe burns were entrusted to the specialized treatment of private clinics, most area veterinarians, such as the Woodside Animal Hospital and Pacific Beach Veterinary clinic, were called upon to dedicate more efforts to boarding and care

Similar events occurred with the 2003 Cedar fire, and unfortunately, due to adverse weather and environment conditions, the odds are high that they will happen again. We hope to illustrate the victories achieved during this latest disaster, as well as discuss the steps that can be taken in case any future disaster should strike throughout this release.

Smaller Animal Issues

Strictly speaking, it is not difficult to relocate a dog or cat. Most pet owners do so on a relatively frequent basis, as their animal is ferried to and from the veterinarian, the dog park, boarder, pet sitters, or any number of other common locations. Despite this, some owners were ill-prepared for an emergency, and did not have an adequate method of transportation at hand. While a modest crate or portable kennel, more environmentally-sensitive creatures like reptiles, fish and amphibians require greater preparation for travel. Even though the animal may escape the flames, if it’s unique needs are not met, the chances for survival are severely reduced.

Other owners were unable to rescue their animals. Pet Services & Products Association of San Diego reported that “Many of the folks evacuated were professional pet sitters...who were caring not only for their own homes but five to ten other households.” Because many of these individuals did not necessarily live in the neighborhoods where they were caring for pets, police were unable to verify the authenticity of their claims and could not allow them to enter evacuated districts to check on the animals in their charge.

Owners who were able to evacuate their pets appeared at shelters with them securely in tow. Most such institutions were very accommodating, especially the Red Cross, who accepted pets at their Qualcomm Stadium, Mira Mesa High School, Lakeside Rodeo and Del Mar Fairgrounds evacuation centers. It was a lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina; prior to 2005 the organization did not allow pets in their rescue shelters. However, “Katrina changed everything. We noticed people will unwilling to leave their pets. They’re family members,” says Andy McKellar, disaster response manager for the San Diego-Imperial County chapter. Though the Red Cross still holds to their no-pets rule, they are now co-joining shelters, or opening up pet evacuation sites adjacent to shelter areas. Likewise, several area hotels went so far as to waive their pet restrictions, while others rescinded the usual fee charged for keeping a pet in a room.

The largest problem with these smaller animals was the availability of food and water. Fortunately, the overwhelming amount of donations and service offered by the larger San Diego pet community allowed the evacuees and their pets to overcome this difficulty.

The Livestock Problem

Unfortunately, a large percentage of the fires struck San Diego’s outlying northern and eastern districts, areas such as Lakeside, Poway and Ramona, that are home to owners of larger animals such as horses, pigs, sheep, goats and other livestock. Horses in particular faced the greatest danger from the wildfires. Under the best of conditions a horse is a chore to transport, and a single horse requires a great deal of food in its daily diet. During the initial outbreak, the fires advanced at such a rapid rate that some owners were forced to open the paddock gates and allow their horses to run free, racing for their lives ahead of the flames.

In a word, though, most horse owners were lucky. Makeshift shelters, specifically designated to cope with the problem of caring for and feeding these larger animals, were erected by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and San Diego County Animal Services in the unaffected portions of Lakeside. Open locations such as Fiesta Island were also converted into temporary paddocks where hay was available. Impromptu water troughs were constructed out of the orange five-gallon buckets donated by Home Depot, and many of the horses were looked after by a cadre of trained emergency responders while their owners sought shelter further towards the coast. Though there are still some animals that are lost or otherwise unaccounted for, overall losses were kept to a minimum.

Professional Care and Assistance

Regarding the rescue efforts and care provided to the displaced animals, Eric Sakach, director of HSUS California, said that “the response to the wildfires is the best [I’ve] ever seen in more than thirty years. The citizens of San Diego have responded in tremendous fashion.” Owners and volunteers turned out in droves to tend to the needs of the Lakeside horses. Elizabeth Johnson, a local resident and horse owner, took her lessons learned from the 2003 Cedar fire and came ready to help others, armed with a cleaning shovel and surplus bags of feed. Other volunteers turned out countywide, providing the majority of staffing and supplied materials for shelters, or operating under the direction of agencies such as San Diego Animals Services and HSUS.

In addition to local residence, emergency response teams arrived from around the nation to assist with the efforts. HSUS California members were joined by volunteer reinforcements from Tallahassee, Seattle, and Austin, as well as the HSUS Northern Rockies response team from Billings, Montana. Three veterinary students from Western University in Pomona, Tamerin Scott, Manprett Mundh and Erin McNeil, lent their training to assist the needs of the animals housed at the Lakeside shelters. “The animals are doing surprisingly well, considering the scale of the disaster,” said Scott. “Their pens are clean and they have plenty of water.”

Local Efforts Shine Through

Since help can come in a variety of ways, being ready with resources and prepared with option is often the best anecdote when you are evacuating from a small or large scale disaster. Many services and businesses have offered a multitude of options for those who were displaced by the recent fires. Almost all offered or continue to offer free or discounted boarding or veterinary services. Some had donation jars set up at their establishments, donated doggy biscuits for Therapy Dogs that went to Qualcomm to assist, had employees volunteer their time to fire victims, sent actual donations or veterinarians over to various evacuation centers and to the fire camps so working Fire Dogs could be transported. While others assisted in evacuating their clients from their homes or combined assistance efforts with agencies such as Spark Relief by posting a list of over 100 collected contacts of volunteers available to assist in boarding, housing or transportation of both people and pets and contacting news stations and agencies to get the information out. Some of these establishments were still able to help even though they themselves had to evacuate their establishments.

For their selfless donations and contributions to the rescue efforts, the following organizations, business, service providers and individuals deserve recognition for assisting with the fire relief efforts by offering the aforementioned options to pet owning fire victims: La Mesa Pet Hotel, Pet Sitting and Dog Walking Services by Kat, 4 Paws Flying Doggie Daycare, Jay’s Bees Kennels, Spring Creek Kennels, AAA Pet Care, Jensen’s Kennels, Good Buddies, Camp Diggity Dog, Original Paw Pleasures, Otay Pet Vets, Spring Valley Veterinary Clinic, Animal Emergency Hospital, Plaza Boulevard Pet Clinic, Balboa Veterinary Hospital, La Mesa Pet Hotel, South Bark Dog Wash, Bark Park, City Dog, Jensen’s Kennels, South Bark Dog Wash, City Dog, Original Paw Pleasures, Mission Gorge Animal Hospital, Balboa Veterinary Hospital, Santee Pet Hospital, Steele Canyon Veterinary Clinic, Barbara’s Pet Care, Original Paw Pleasures, Best Friends Pet Resort & Salon, Pet Sitting and Dog Walking Services by Kat, Spark Relief, San Diego County Animal Control, Petco Foundation, Petsmart Charities, Home Depot of Mission Valley, Mike Carter’s Feed of Lakeside, Emergency Animal Disaster Services of New York, Abaxis Co., Stations Casinos Inc., Pet Services & Products Association of San Diego, Emergency Animal Rescue (EAR), Friends of County Animal Shelters (FOCAS), Noah’s Wish nonprofit disaster response, and the Baja Animal Sanctuary.

Pet Emergency Preparedness

With a little bit of planning and preemptive effort, many of the difficulties encountered during a disaster can be overcome. While it is impossible to anticipate when a disaster will occur, having a solid disaster plan in place can save lives. Your pets are members of your family, and any disaster plan you create must include them. If you are forced to evacuate, leaving them behind, despite how safe the environment might seem, only increases their risk of injury or death.

HSUS recommends that all pet owners assemble an emergency supply kit for each of your pets, as you would for your other family members. Your kit should include:

*At least a three-day supply of food and drinking water, secured in easy-to-carry containers. Though pets may not come to physical harm during a disaster or the subsequent recovery, food shortages can quickly become a problem. This includes bowls or other feeding apparatus, as well as methods for disposal of waste, such as dog bags and cat litter.
*Up-to-date photos and descriptions of your pets.
*Identification. Your pet’s tag should have an additional phone number of someone out of the area in the event it becomes lost. See “Designated Care Givers” below.
*If you have not done so already, it is recommended that you have your pet micro-chipped. In the event you and your pet become separated, the data contained in the chip can facilitate a speedy recovery. Talk to your vet, or go to for more information.
*If your pet uses any medications, keep extra supplies, as well as their medical records and a pet first-aid kit.
*Reliable leashes, harness and carriers to transport your pets. Remember that your pet may be spending several hours or even days inside its carrier, so it should be large enough to ensure their comfort.

Familiarize yourself with your environment, and with any natural disasters that may occur. While the wildfires have garnered the bulk of the media attention in the last couple of years, the San Diego area is also subject to the occasional earthquake. Plan out evacuation routes, and learn the locations of the emergency shelters in their area, especially ones with pet-friendly policies. In addition, you should assemble a list of local animal shelters. If you become separated from your pets, this would be the place to begin your search.

Remember, there is no guarantee that emergency relief will be as accommodating as in recent history, so the better informed you are beforehand, the easier your recovery efforts will be later.

Designated Care Givers

Establishing a designated care giver can be an important step before, during, and after a natural disaster. A professional pet sitter can provide a temporary home for your pet in the even you become separated or are unable to otherwise reach them in the event of an unexpected disaster. If, as a result of the disaster, you are unable to care for your pets, a designated care giver can help you find a permanent, loving home for them. Remember, your care giver or pet sitter is the person to whom you are entrusting the care of your pet in the event something should happen to; in effect, they become foster parent to your child. It has been highly recommended by several professional pet sitters and boarders to set yourself up with several options in the event your primary choices also have to evacuate or become otherwise unavailable.

How You Can Continue To Help

Though the fires have since passed, the scars they left in their wake still remain, scorched onto the land and seared into our hearts and minds. Homeowners were displaced during the evacuations, and despite the care given at rescue shelters, there are still a large number of pets and domestic animals that have yet to be reunited with their families. Other areas have sustained damage to their animal care and veterinary facilities, and are desperately in need of funds and supplies to aid in rebuilding efforts.

If you wish to provide assistance, the Citizen Action Team Response provides a complete list of all agencies providing fire relief, and is a great resource of those looking to donate. Check out The Department of Animal Service’s website at has up-to-date information on injured and rescued pets. They also provide a downloadable pet disaster plan. Information on the San Diego Humane Society’s fire animal rescues and Fire Relief Pet Assistance Program is available at needs individuals willing to foster displaced pets. Please go to for info and registration. Updated information about the fires and fire safety can be found at Continuing information about fire relief and recovery is posted at The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: United Animal nations is a non-profit animal advocacy organization whose mission is to protect animals in danger or need. You can help at The VCA Grossmont Animal Hospital of La Mesa is spearheading treatment efforts for animals with fire related injuries. Contact them at 619-697-0082 or If you or someone you know has lost a pet, is a support site dedicated to providing comfort and other grieving services. For further information and care tips, please consult your area veterinarian. A quick Google or YAHOO! Search will also yield additional sources.

For further information on finding a professional pet sitter, please visit Pet Sitters International (PSI) at For local information on pet sitting in San Diego County, contact Pet Sitting and Dog Walking Services by Kat on the web at

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Text and copy services by Matthew Baldwin,