Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Pets to be welcome at Tamarac storm shelter this year

Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Furry, feathered or scaled friends will be allowed inside Broward County's newest emergency shelter this hurricane season.

Millennium Middle School in Tamarac is South Florida's first evacuation center that will give animal owners the option of weathering a storm with their pets. The shelter is meant only for pet owners who live in the county's evacuation zone, which includes all the coastal areas and mobile home parks.

"We totally understand the importance that pets have in families," said Ivana Lodovici, spokeswoman for the Broward chapter of the Red Cross. "Our main concern is the safety of people, and some residents of the coastal area would not leave their homes last year because they didn't want to leave their pets. That's a huge safety problem."

Animal welfare workers and county officials hope the shelter's availability will persuade residents in coastal zones to evacuate and not to leave their pets behind.

The new shelter comes a year after animal shelters throughout Florida overflowed with dogs and cats left homeless or abandoned by their owners after four hurricanes hit the state.

Laura Bevan, director of the Humane Society's Southeast regional office in Tallahassee, said there are no official statewide records for lost pets in last year's storms, but they surpassed 10,000 animals.

"It's scary to think that until now there were no pet-friendly shelters south of Brevard County," Bevan said. "This is a tremendous help. More counties need to put an animal element into their emergency plans."

There are no such shelters in Miami-Dade or Palm Beach counties.

Because space will be limited to a maximum of 350 pets and 500 people at the Millennium shelter, eligible residents are asked to register at the Humane Society of Broward County starting June 8.

Local Red Cross chapters, which run the shelters, have not accepted animals in the past because of sanitary concerns, since food is distributed at the centers. What makes the Millennium location suitable is that animals will take refuge inside individual crates in the school's gym, while owners will stay in the cafeteria. Humane Society volunteers and a veterinarian will supervise the pets.

Christine Herman, who lives in a mobile home park in Davie, has never left her two Boston terriers and cat behind during a storm, fearful of the looters that come afterward. Instead, she has stayed home during mandatory evacuations.

"If it's north of West Palm Beach, then we stay home," said Herman, who works as a receptionist at the Humane Society. "I think it's a wonderful thing for there to be a pet shelter, but me personally I'd rather be home."

Mike Stone, spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, hopes all residents living in low-lying areas or mobile homes make preparations to evacuate.

"Many times you don't know the timeline of the hurricane," Stone said. "We want to make sure folks treat their four-legged creature like a human being. People and their pets need to be safe."

Bevan said before last year's whirlwinds, only Volusia and Seminole counties had set up pet-friendly shelters. Now, more than a dozen counties may implement similar measures.

"After each storm hit, people became more terrified," Bevan said. "Once other counties see that dogs and cats will not be running around at the shelter and it's not total chaos, I think it will catch on."

But Christopher Agostino, executive director of the Humane Society of Broward County, cautioned that the shelter "should be used only as a last resort. We want people to consider going to family or friends in a nonevacuation zone, going to a hotel, or boarding their pets first."

To register for the shelter, or for more information on hurricane preparation involving pets, call the Humane Society of Broward County at 954-989-3977.

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