Residents: Bark is as big as bite when it comes to sheltering pets

With Superstorm Sandy still fresh in their minds and the possibility of major storms in the future considered a matter of when and not if, residents are calling for change in the town’s policy toward pets in emergency shelters.

Among those advocating for the allowance of pets in storm shelters is Stephanie Paulmeno, the former director of nursing at The Nathaniel Witherell rehab and nursing center and the Democratic candidate for the 150th District’s state legislature seat last fall.

According to Ms. Paulmeno, The Nathaniel Witherell has a tradition of being animal-friendly, given its pet therapy and recreation programs, and has always allowed shelter victims staying at the facility to bring along their pets.

“It was never a problem for us” having animals around, Ms. Paulmeno said. The facility merely asked that they be kept safely in crates. Allergies, fear factors and other concerns were never an issue, she said.

And although surrounding towns allowed families and their pets to stay at local disaster shelters during Sandy, Greenwich stood alone in turning away those with animals, she said. In fact, Ms. Paulmeno herself, who lives in Old Greenwich just outside the storm’s immediate flood zone, did not heed the town’s mandatory evacuation warning because she would not leave her two dogs to fend for themselves. She said she even had to turn down assisting as a nurse at one of the town’s shelters the night of the anticipated storm surge as a result of the no pets rule.

While the town suggested that pet owners leave their animals at the veterinarian’s or an animal shelter during the storm, Ms. Paulmeno said she was not alone in refusing to bring her dogs to a facility where there would be countless animals and a very limited staff.

The town was able to escape a predicted storm surge, but if it had not, the results could have been similar to the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Ms. Paulmeno said.

“Katrina brought home how many people were needlessly adversely impacted to a greater degree than might otherwise have been the case because people who care about their pets will not leave them to fend for themselves, and are not likely to drop them off elsewhere where the level of care and commitment would be iffy,” she said. “It would be akin to leaving your child in day care while you left to safeguard yourself.”

Having been lucky enough to fare Superstorm Sandy well, Ms. Paulmeno said, she spent the morning after the anticipated storm surge checking on vulnerable neighbors who included elderly people, single mothers, young children, and even someone who had recently undergone surgery. In house after house, she found that families in the mandatory evacuation zone had stayed in their homes because they had refused to leave their pets. Therefore, Ms. Paulmeno said, the issue is not only about safeguarding pets but about potentially saving the lives of the humans who stay behind to care for them.

“Responsible pet owners are not going to leave their pets,” she said.

During her years of community health and disaster planning, including domestic animals in disaster plans was a frequent topic, Ms. Paulmeno said. After Katrina hit and the number of people who died because they would not leave their pets came to light, the federal government required that disaster plans include family pets. Without specifying how the pets should be incorporated into the plans, however, the government left a loophole that towns like Greenwich have fallen into, she said.

Although it is an American Red Cross policy to only allow service pets in their disaster shelters, other towns in the area simply had other organizations host their shelters, then brought in Red Cross workers to assist, Ms. Paulmeno said. “If towns up and down the line can respond compassionately and humanely to include family pets in disaster care, there is absolutely no reason I could ever accept that would convince me that Greenwich, with all its resources, cannot.”

Ms. Paulmeno is not alone in her sentiments. Selectman Drew Marzullo and Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st District) are also major advocates for pet sheltering.

In an interview with the Post, Mr. Marzullo said he has already held a meeting with Mr. Camillo, a Red Cross representative, members of the town’s Department of Health, including Director Caroline Baisley, and others to address the issue.

“This should not be that complicated,” Mr. Marzullo said, pointing to the majority of Connecticut towns that do not have problems sheltering pets in times of emergency. Though logistics will need to be worked out, such as providing separate entrances to shelters for animals and people because of allergies, future power outages and storms are inevitable, he said. The town should be there during those kinds of events to alleviate stress wherever possible, including pet owner stress.

The animal shelter on North Street is not large enough to accommodate the number of residents with animals, Mr. Marzullo said, though he called The Nathaniel Witherell’s acceptance of pets a “great start.” Pets are often “people’s families,” he said, adding, “Some people like their pets more than their family members.” After ensuring that all involved in the sheltering process are educated on hosting animals, the town and those who run its shelters must act, Mr. Marzullo said. “This is something we can do.”

Ms. Baisley, however, said things aren’t so simple. With just one facility, the Bendheim Western Greenwich Civic Center, serving as the town’s official emergency shelter, as it is the only building that is fully powered by a generator, space is an issue, she said. During a major disaster, it’s possible that there won’t be enough shelter space for humans, let alone pets, even with extra shelters like the one at Eastern Middle School that opened during Superstorm Sandy. The issue is one that many surrounding communities also face, Ms. Baisley said.

Additionally, Ms. Baisley said, the Department of Health and the Red Cross provide shelters that are meant to keep humans safe. If pets are also to be accommodated, other organizations will have to get involved and take charge. She said the issue becomes even more complicated when working with town-owned buildings, which have many codes and restrictions.

Nevertheless, Ms. Baisley, a dog owner, said the town does need to devise a plan that will allow for pet sheltering. “No one will say it’s not important,” she said.

In hopes of speeding up the process and finding a permanent solution, Mr. Marzullo said he will hold future meetings with various town officials to resolve the pet sheltering issue, adding that it is not a topic that should have to be revisited “again and again.”


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