The first pet-friendly hurricane shelters will open their doors to Cayman Islands residents in the event of a storm this summer.
New protocols mean shelters at John Gray High School and Clifton Hunter High School will be able to accept dogs and cats for the first time.
The new provision comes amid fears that animal lovers would ignore evacuation warnings to stay with their pets – even in the event of a severe hurricane.
Danielle Coleman, of Hazard Management Cayman Islands, said, “We know there are a lot of people that won’t leave their pets and would put themselves at risk to stay with them.
“We have to be able to look after pets in order to look after people. This is very important for the protection of human lives, not just animal lives.”
The locker rooms at both high schools will be adapted to accommodate pets. There is space for 30 dogs or 60 cats at John Gray and 15 dogs or 25 cats at Clifton Hunter.
Pets, like people, will be allocated space on a first-come, first-served basis.
Coleman said government was looking to increase the number of spaces for pets as part of a more general effort to create more shelter space.
Currently, there is room for 5,120 people at a network of shelters across the Cayman Islands in the event of a hurricane or another natural disaster.
“It is definitely a serious challenge, but we are doing everything we can to find new shelter space,” said Coleman.
Once the new John Gray High School is complete, it will be able to accommodate more than 5,000 people in an emergency situation – nearly five times the capacity it can hold at the moment.
A new shelter is also planned at the Church of God in Bodden Town, where government is investing more than $2 million to complete a multipurpose hall and shelter.
Coleman said a network of 185 trained volunteers was on hand to man the shelters if a hurricane hits.
Hazard Management is also working with private sector businesses to ensure they have hurricane plans for their staff.
Coleman acknowledged that not everyone, human or animal, would be able to find space in a government shelter, and urged people to have a back-up plan.
“The important thing is to be prepared and to have a plan in place,” Coleman said. “Don’t leave it till the last minute. Have a back-up option so you know you have a family or friend’s house in a safe location where you can stay.”
A 2017 paper published in the American Journal of Public Health highlighted a lack of options for pets as a major weakness in disaster evacuation planning.
“During a disaster, many pet owners want to evacuate their pets with them, only to find that evacuation and sheltering options are limited or nonexistent. This disregard for companion animal welfare during a disaster can have public health consequences,” study author Robin Chadwin, a veterinarian and associate at the UC Davis International Animal Welfare Training Institute wrote in the paper.
“Emergency planning for companion animals during disasters is a global need in communities with a significant pet population, and will increase resilience and improve public health,” the study noted.
It cited polls where 16.2% of participants said that they would not evacuate without their pets and 8.1% said they would stay at home with their pets during an evacuation. Another study found that 44% of people who refused to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina did so in part because they refused to leave their pets behind.
Governor Martyn Roper, who reviewed Cayman’s hurricane preparation plans earlier this month, said the pet-friendly shelters were a welcome addition to the island’s facilities. For more information on preparing for hurricane season, go to www.caymanprepared.gov.ky.