Pet-friendly emergency shelter is approved

Puppy stock photoAfter months of planning, the town is now prepared to allow domesticated pets into designated town emergency shelters, and with the hurricane season on the horizon, the timing is just right.

The prohibition of pets, aside from service animals, in Greenwich emergency shelters has often caused a stir in the wake of major storms. But after Superstorm Sandy hit last fall, the issue could no longer be ignored as pet owners from all over town were up in arms, prompting a number of town officials and community members to take action.

It was town resident Kerrin Coyle, a volunteer with Adopt-A-Dog for 16 years and a member of the organization’s annual Puttin’ on the Dog festival’s steering committee, who got the ball rolling. In fact, in an interview with the Post, Ms. Coyle said she first began advocating for the allowance of pets into emergency shelters a few years ago, but was unable to make much headway working on her own.

Although The Nathaniel Witherell rehab and nursing center allows humans and their pets to take shelter there in the event of an emergency, the only other option to keep pets safe, aside from staying at local pet-friendly hotels, is the Animal Control facility on North Street, which does not have enough space to accommodate all those in town who have pets, she said.

When Ms. Coyle and Sherry Wernicke, who has also volunteered with Adopt-A-Dog, discovered that such permission was both a federal and state requirement, however, the women approached First Selectman Peter Tesei about developing a solution, Ms. Coyle said. Adding on Greenwich residents Leora Levy, Linda Bruno and Janet Freiheit, the women formed what they called the “Pet Evacuation Committee” and went about finding other supporters.

According to Ms. Coyle, Mr. Tesei, as well as Selectmen Drew Marzullo and David Theis and State Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st), were onboard from the get-go, and although getting other local parties to unite on the issue was a major challenge, eventually a plan of action began to take shape. In November, meetings that included the committee, Mr. Tesei, Director of Emergency Management Dan Warzoha, Red Cross representative Ross Ogden, school district representatives, Chief of Police Jim Heavey, town Director of Health Caroline Baisley and others, were conducted in an effort to devise a plan that would be acceptable to the community.

Finally, at a meeting held approximately two weeks ago, the opportunity to use Eastern Middle School as a pet-friendly emergency facility was presented and accepted by those involved, Ms. Coyle said. The group confirmed that with the use of the school’s generator, the building could house humans and those with their service dogs, as well as regular dogs and their humans in one room and a separate room for cats and small animals, Ms. Coyle said.

The school has a separate entrance that can be used to bring pets in and out of the shelter while also allowing pet owners to take their animals to the bathroom or to get some exercise without disturbing others, she said. Additionally, she said, the entrance leads to two art rooms that are ideal for housing animals as they have open space and sinks available to fill water bowls and keep things clean.

As part of the agreement, pet owners would be asked to bring a large cage to the shelter to house their pet, along with their food, water and a litterbox if applicable. For those who don’t own a large enough cage, the town would provide one, Ms. Coyle said. Mr. Warzoha already has a number of cages on hand and more are on the way, she said. In total, the town would have 55 to 70 cages available for pets if an emergency were to strike in the immediate future. And if necessary, Ms. Coyle added, Adopt-A-Dog has a number of cages it would be willing to provide for use in an emergency shelter.

Although permitting pets in emergency facilities has generally not been opposed by the community, Ms. Coyle said she fought hard to ensure that those involved in the project understood the need for both humans and their pets to be in the same place. The stress level animals endure during times of uncertainty, along with the noise level in a heavily populated shelter, makes it vital that owners are with their pets to alleviate anxiety, she said. Accordingly, owners may not have beds in pet-friendly rooms within the shelter, but a chair to sit by the animals will be provided. Those who desire a bed would be required to go to a human-only area to acquire one, she added.

As far as health safety is concerned, Mr. Tesei addressed the issue at the Board of Selectmen’s July 25 meeting.

“There has been considerable research done on what needs to be done to make this a reality,” Mr. Tesei said. “One thing that was told to us, and we checked with our risk management people, is that anyone who is going to be doing intake of pets would have to first make sure they have had all their proper vaccinations. It’s no different than if you were to drop your pet off at a veterinary clinic.”

Mr. Tesei also noted that the town’s sheltering service for pets will only be available for domesticated animals and not for any exotic species that people in town might be keeping as pets.

“I don’t think anyone is envisioning exotics brought into a shelter,” Mr. Tesei said. “Frankly if you have an exotic pet it’s up to you to take responsibility for it. The town can only do so much.”

Ms. Coyle confirmed that exotic animals such as large snakes and other sizable reptiles would not be permitted into the emergency shelter but that small creatures such as pet hamsters would be allowed.

With most of the logistics worked out, the final step in the process will be to find “reliable, serious volunteers” who will be dedicated to assisting with the pet rooms at the emergency shelter, Ms. Coyle said. Mr. Camillo told the Post he is one of many involved who will volunteer his services. For other interested residents, the town will hold classes to prepare volunteers for their duties, Ms. Coyle said. Those who are serious about getting involved are encouraged to contact Ms. Coyle at [email protected]

In an effort to spread the word about the town’s new pet sheltering service, as well as to inform the community of general best practices during an emergency, the annual Puttin’ on the Dog festival, to be held Sept. 22, will have a special tent dedicated to providing information about evacuation proceedings, Ms. Coyle said. The Red Cross’s Mary Jones, along with Ms. Wernicke will be there to answer questions regarding how to evacuate in the event of an emergency and how pets will be accommodated.


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