NEW YORK (Reuters) - It is one thing to show up at a friend’s apartment and sleep on the couch for a few days after a natural disaster displaces you from your home.
But it is another thing entirely to expect your host to take in Fluffy and Fido, too.
The American Humane Association estimates that 15 million dogs, 14 million cats and 1.5 million horses were in Hurricane Sandy’s path - not to mention assorted ferrets, guinea pigs and fish. Finding accommodations for those pets that needed a safe refuge has proved to be a challenge.
New York City’s 76 shelters were open to pets of owners evacuated during the storm. Pets were also allowed to ride on public transportation during the evacuation, which is not the norm.
“The city did a great job keeping people and pets together,” says Richard Gentles, spokesman for Animal Care & Control of New York City, a non-profit contracted by the city to rescue animals and run five shelters.
The number of animals in New York City and Long Island shelters peaked at 400, says Emily Schneider, a spokeswoman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). That dropped to about 300 on Wednesday, she said. Those numbers only covered shelters the ASPCA checked on.
After about a quarter million pets were left behind following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Congress approved the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006, which called for state and local disaster plans to include provisions for sheltering pets.
Thousands of storm victims searched for places they could stay with their pets - at a hotel, with a relative or a friend.
Some hotel chains, such as the boutique Kimpton Hotels - with more than 100 hotels nationwide, including four in Manhattan - have open-door policies for animals. A list with 36 animal friendly hotels in northern New Jersey was distributed widely before the storm hit.
The attraction of the pet-friendly hotel was unmistakable this week at the Hilton Long Island in Melville, New York where dogs and their owners were seemingly everywhere - except in the dining areas. The sound of small, yapping dogs became a part of the atmosphere.
But plenty of people were forced to find other alternatives for their pets. On Long Island, a black Labrador retriever named Kramer is now living in foster care - his owners had to flee when a tree fell on the roof of their Long Island home. Maureen Devine, a 69-year-old retired nurse, took Kramer in after her daughter heard about the dog’s plight from his owner.
The Huntington, New York, woman is hunkered down with Kramer and her own dog, a Shih Tzu, in a three-bedroom condo. It is dark and cold, but she says she is in it for the long haul, even if power is not restored for another week.
“We don’t have any options,” Devine says. “I am grateful that my house wasn’t hit by a tree. I’m grateful I wasn’t hit by a tree, and am just hoping the lights will come back on soon.”
Pet insurance doesn’t normally pay to shelter an animal, but Dr. Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services at insurer Petplan, says some higher-level policies do include coverage for boarding if the owner is hospitalized due to an injury.
Beyond just cats and dogs, those who own reptiles, fish and birds face additional challenges when the power goes out.
Fish cannot survive for long without oxygen pumped into their tanks and reptiles need a heat source, says Marty Becker, an Idaho veterinarian, author and columnist for Vetstreet.com. “Birds have a very high metabolism so they can’t go very long without food,” and the birds are vulnerable to odors, he says.
Pet welfare officials say it is too soon to say how many pets were killed this week by the storm or might still be at risk. Gentles of Animal Care & Control says his agency took in about two dozen animals found wandering after the storm and was caring for a few others that owners had to leave behind.
Significant challenges remain for those shelters that are willing to take in pets in an emergency. The Woodbridge Animal Shelter in New Jersey was damaged by flooding - the animals were rescued. A tree landed on the roof of an animal shelter in New London, Connecticut, but the animals were not injured.
Numerous efforts are underway to unite pets that were separated from their owners. At least two dogs were reunited with their owners through a Facebook page called “Hurricane Sandy Lost and Found Pets,” including one in Breezy Point - the section of Queens that was devastated by fire. The Facebook page was started by a woman in New Orleans.
The ASPCA says through its partnership with PetSmart Charities it will truck enough supplies to the New York metro area for 4,000 animals from its warehouse in Syracuse, New York. But an estimated 10,000 animals were likely in need of supplies just in a section of Queens which was hit hard by the storm.
It will take days to follow up on all the requests for help in New Jersey, ASPCA officials say.
A team of eight with a couple of boats started pet rescue operations on Friday in Ocean County, New Jersey. Tim Rickey, senior director of field investigations and response for the ASPCA, expects the team will find pets in need of help and a fair number of dead animals.
“Unfortunately, they will begin uncovering some pretty sad situations,” Rickey says.
Additional reporting by Lynn Adler. Editing By Lauren Young, Heather Struck and Carol Bishopric