By Colleen Quinn
State House News Service
BOSTON -- State senators hope legislation they passed Thursday to create pet evacuation plans during emergencies will avoid scenes where residents are lifted from rooftops, clinging to their pets because they refuse to leave them behind and end up jeopardizing their own safety.
The Senate unanimously approved a bill that requires cities and towns to have plans in place to evacuate and shelter household pets and service animals before, during and after an emergency or natural disaster.
Too often people stay in their homes when they should evacuate, refusing to leave their pets behind, senators said.
"I have to admit as a dog owner, I don't think I could leave my house and leave my dogs behind. I think all of us here would say the same," Sen. Karen Spilka, who sponsored the bill, said on the Senate floor.
If it makes it to final passage, Massachusetts will join 13 other states that have laws aimed at protecting pets during an evacuation emergency, including Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey. This is the first time a bill addressing pet safety in a disaster has been filed in Massachusetts.
"This isn't simply a human interest story about protecting pets. It is about protecting human life because so many of us wouldn't leave," said Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat.
Animal rights groups said Superstorm Sandy that battered the East Coast in 2012 and other hurricanes around the country point to the need for evacuation plans. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, nearly half the people, 44 percent, who refused to evacuate said they could not bring themselves to abandon their pets, according to a survey conducted after the storm.
During Katrina, as many as 600,000 animals were abandoned or left to fend for themselves as their owners evacuated from flood zones and sought shelter. As many as 250,000 of those animals died in the weeks and months following the disaster, according to Spilka.
Along with evacuation plans, the bill also asks communities to educate residents on the local resources available to them and their pets so they feel more comfortable to leave during an emergency. Montigny and Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, both said they hoped the pet safety bill would set the stage for other bills protecting animals from cruelty and abuse.
"The day has arrived when we will have a long and productive look at animal welfare, and it starts with this bill. We need to do much, much more," Tarr said.
The bill passed by the Senate addresses emergencies -- situations that are out of people's control, he said. The Legislature needs to respond to "heinous acts of brutality," Tarr said.
Senate Republicans last week filed a bill to increase penalties for those convicted of abusing animals, citing the brutal abuse recently of Puppy Doe, a two-year-old female pit bull discovered in a Quincy park. The bill also creates an animal abuse registry to prevent future sales of animals by individuals convicted of animal abuse. The bill has attracted 40 cosponsors, with Sen. Tarr asking all cosponsors to sign on by Tuesday at 5 p.m.
The pet safety bill now heads to the House, where a supporter of the legislation said it has several cosponsors.