It’s an old question – ‘What would you take with you if your home was on fire and you had to make a dash for it?’ For years, my answer to the question was the same: my cat and my memory stick. I sadly no longer have my cat, so it’s just the memory stick now. Touching wood, I’ll never be faced with that dilemma; but it’s not just fire that can provoke a swift and sudden flight. Hurricane Irma’s trail of death and destruction across the Caribbean and the southern coastal States of the US has forced people into giving their own answers to a similar question. Unfortunately – and, to me, inexplicably – many of them didn’t regard their pets as being top of the list; some didn’t even put their pets on the list at all. For such a God-fearing country as America, it’s amazing how many Americans failed to take a leaf out of Noah’s book.

Living in Blighty, we tend not to experience such extreme weather conditions. Yes, we’ve suffered some terrible floods in recent years and there have been the odd occasions in which Michael Fish has had to regret not taking a can of Mr Sheen to his meteorological crystal ball; but by and large most of us have no concept of having to make a rapid exit in the knowledge that the Big Bad Wolf will probably huff ‘n’ puff and blow our house down in our absence. Having said that, knowing it was coming would enable us to hastily gather our loved ones together and get the hell out of there quick. Nobody but a complete bastard would leave their children behind, so why would anyone abandon such significant family members as their pets?

Wind speeds of 135mph, a storm surge of 10 feet, three inches of rain every hour – that’s what was predicted when Irma came to town, and the people responded accordingly, by packing away all essential possessions and running to the hills; a pity pets weren’t regarded as essential possessions. The sad fact is that animals kept in the home are no more important to some people than disposable and replaceable items like furniture; there might be a hurricane coming that will more than likely condemn the poor beasts to a certain death, but hey, we can always get a new one once we rebuild our wrecked nest, just like we can a widescreen TV set. The mind boggles.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen several heartbreaking videos online of admirable animal rescuers travelling down residential streets transformed into the residential rivers of JG Ballard’s ‘The Drowned World’ in search of pets left behind; and they found plenty. In Florida’s Palm Beach County, the first 48 hours of Hurricane Irma saw Animal Care and Control officers come to the rescue of 38 dogs and two cats that their owners clearly didn’t view as worthy of joining them on the journey out of town. With the saddest of ironies, such a socially gregarious animal as the dog appears to have received the worst of this careless cruelty from its best friend.

Despite the fact that there were many evacuation centres accommodating pets along with their owners, some still chose to not only abandon their animals, but in the case of several dogs, to leave them chained up to poles or in kennels; the dogs couldn’t even make their own escape as a consequence. In Polk County, four dogs were mercifully saved from a watery grave by members of the public; the rising water level in the kennel they found them in was apparently as high as the dog’s chests and the grimy pool was also swimming with horrific-sounding fire ants. It’s worth remembering too that the Animal Care and Control officers have to deal with dogs whose bewilderment with, and fear of, their predicament in such a situation can be manifested as aggression, making their lifesaving work all the more heroic under the circumstances.

Flying debris can be as big a danger as flooding in the conditions that descended upon Florida; experts said as little as a single grain of sand in winds of 100mph can cause a serious injury. The image of confused dogs tethered to immovable objects when Mother Nature is inflicting such a violent onslaught in the vicinity is one that should haunt the guilty parties forevermore; but if they had a conscience, they wouldn’t have left their pets to face it alone in the first place. Some simply dumped animals at shelters before fleeing and probably believe they’re somehow more responsible and humane than those who didn’t think even think their pets deserved that much; but they still left them.

In Palm Beach County, chaining dogs outside a property if the owner is absent is actually a felony offence, so doing so in a hurricane means some stiff penalties are imminent. Returning home, these ‘victims’ of Irma for whom it’s difficult to have much in the way of sympathy can look forward to fines and even prison sentences for their callous actions. The maximum sentence, incidentally, is a mouth-watering five years. The State Prosecutor for Palm Beach said, ‘This is a prime example of animal cruelty. We will find you and we will prosecute you.’ The Animal Care and Control Captain of the same county added, ‘The animals should be a valued part of your family and they should be part of your plan.’

Those who may well receive time behind bars will also not get those pets back and will be banned from owning any pets ever again; meanwhile, those who dropped their pets off at animal shelters before hot-footing it out of town will be placed on a ‘Do Not Adopt’ list; they too will not be reunited with the animals they rid themselves of. Sure, none of us on this side of the pond can picture the nightmarish scenario that people in the path of Hurricane Irma found themselves in; but that’s still no excuse for the cruelty some of them exhibited towards animals in their care. I hope their new homeless status lasts until at least the next storm. Serves them right.

© The Editor