Debrah Schnackenberg

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Senior Vice President, Emergency Services

It’s been three weeks since the earthquake hit northern Japan. What’s happened in the meantime to help animals?

The tragedy in Japan touched the hearts of people around the world and prompted an outpouring of support. American Humane Association immediately began reaching out to our partners on the ground following the disasters and has already provided $10,000 in cash, along with 2 shipments of critically needed animal sheltering supplies to support local animal relief efforts in Japan. This assistance to the Japan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (JSPCA) and the Japan Animal Welfare Society (JAWS) will help provide shelter to the thousands of animals that were displaced by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency affecting the country. American Humane Association’s renowned Red Star Animal Emergency Services™ team is also standing by to assist as soon as we get the go-ahead from the Japanese. As you may have heard, due to the safety risks and the complexity of the disaster response effort, the Japanese government has not yet requested international organizations for large-scale animal rescue operations, and no legitimate animal welfare group deploys without a formal invitation from the responsible government/agency. This policy is for the safety of both the victims and the responders. Relief and rescue on the ground in Japan is an extraordinarily complex effort. In addition to the challenges and risks presented by the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, the radiation dangers from the stricken nuclear power plant have made the situation even more challenging. In the meantime, we and other relief groups with which we are allied, such as the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition, are pooling our collective expertise and resources to assist well-qualified local groups on the ground in Japan and to support recovery efforts that will help animals well into the future.

What are the top animal rescue priorities right now?

There are three unique and fundamental challenges that are being addressed simultaneously. The first is to rescue any animals that were left in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. Given the destruction, this is a daunting task. Farm animals that had to be left behind are particularly hard-hit, and search-and-rescue efforts for companion animals are also under way. It’s hard to put in words the challenges that exist, not the least of which is the wholesale destruction of infrastructure, which makes it difficult to get people or equipment into the disaster zone. The second challenge that’s being addressed is sheltering animals that did get out when their families evacuated. Despite the leaps and bounds that have been made by our Red Star team and others over the years to ensure that animals are considered in disaster management plans here in the United States, many human shelters in Japan can’t accommodate animals evacuated with their owners. Finally, there are large evacuation areas around the damaged nuclear plants. When people were told to leave, they took what animals they could, but had to leave many behind. Those animals are in need of food and shelter, but the risk from the radiological emergency makes entering that zone unsafe for rescuers.

Some people say that focusing on animal rescue is a waste of resources when so many people are suffering. What do you say to that?

That’s a question we get asked any time Red Star responds to an emergency, whether the crisis in Japan, the devastation in Haiti, or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. First, we believe that rescuing animals is simply the right thing to do. And that is the focus of Red Star — to rescue and shelter animals, just as there are organizations whose focus is to rescue and shelter people. Our work with animals does not take resources away from efforts to help people. In fact, animal rescue and human rescue are related in many respects. For instance some people won’t evacuate their homes if they can’t take their animals with them. This endangers not only the individuals themselves, but also the search-and-rescue teams that are there to help them. Every second matters in these situations, and delay can literally mean the difference between success and tragedy. Beyond that, recovering from these disasters – physically, emotionally, economically, socially – is a long and arduous process. Families and communities want to rebuild their lives; to be whole again. For many of us – especially children – that means staying with our pets and animal companions, or being reunited with them as quickly as possible.

Are there lessons we should learn from this tragedy?

Of course the first thing we need to focus on is what needs to be done right now. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people and animals who are suffering, and those who are risking their lives to save others. In terms of what we can learn, the most important thing, I think, is that we should always be prepared – at both the personal and community levels. Regardless of where you live, the fact is disaster can strike any time. American Humane Association has a number of tips for individuals and families on that front. We also encourage people to get involved with their city or county disaster response teams to make sure animals and pets are included in community disaster planning when it comes to preparing for the evacuation and care of pets in the event of a disaster.

What can I do to help?

The most important thing for animals in Japan right now is that their needs be met in a coordinated, professional manner. One hundred percent of the contributions made to American Humane Association for animal relief in Japan will go to animal relief in Japan. We have the experience and the contacts to ensure that the money is distributed in the most effective and efficient manner possible. No matter who you consider donating to, we urge you to thoroughly research that organization to make sure your contribution is going to be used in the way you intend. Aside from that, having been on the ground myself in very difficult situations, I can tell you that it actually does mean something to people – and, I believe, animals – to know that the world is watching … and help is on the way.

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