The Bonds Between People and Animals

After Hurricane Michael roared ashore in Mexico Beach, Florida, with a 15-foot storm surge, Hal Summers tucked his cat, Mr. Red, into the crook of his left arm and headed for high ground at his parents’ home—an elevated, exterior bathroom on the far side of the house, reachable only by an outdoor walkway. 

A man named Frank, his parents’ 73-year-old neighbor who had also refused to evacuate, joined him, along with his two dogs. 

Hal’s plan to sit out Hurricane Michael in October 2018 had unraveled within minutes of the storm making landfall as his parents’ house filled with water. In the tense, touch-and-go hours that followed, Hal and Frank demonstrated what emergency planners learned the hard way in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005: Some Americans love their animals so much they’re willing to risk their lives for them.

 When Hal stepped outside onto the wooden walkway, part of it collapsed and he plunged, with Mr. Red against his chest, into the dark water. 

“When I fell through the walkway, we both went down immediately, and my first reaction was to hold him up above my head,” Hal said. “I was scared. I thought he’d get scared and jump away. But I still had him in my hand, and I thought, ‘I’m not letting go of him.’”

Frank was able to get a grip on Hal, who was still holding Mr. Red over his head with one arm, and hoist him back up onto the edge of what remained of the walkway. Together the men and their pets made their way to the exterior bathroom. The cat never tried to claw or bite Hal through the turmoil, and Frank’s dogs huddled against him. Hal put Mr. Red on a high shelf in the bathroom and the men spent two hours standing on a bench jammed against the bathroom door, the water swirling around their waists, until the storm passed. Nothing went according to Hal’s plan, except that he and Frank survived, and they made sure their animals did, too. 

In mid-March, videographer Anna Belle Peevey and I met Hal and his cat—who in fact is black, not red—in Mexico Beach, where he was living with his brother after Hurricane Michael had wrecked both his parents’ home and his own apartment. Mr. Red roamed in and out of the house, wandering the big grassy yard, his black fur in the sunshine taking on the red tint that had given him his name. 

Amid the Crisis, People Expressed Their Ideals Caring for Animals 

Anna Belle and I were travelling the country for InsideClimate News to report and shoot American Climate, a documentary project about people who had endured extreme, climate change-related weather disasters and were struggling through the protracted, difficult aftermath.

In each place where we spent time, whenever people in Florida, California and the Great Plains talked about the devastation, they talked about animals: the ones they lived with as pets, the ones they raised for slaughter, the wild ones they saw fleeing disaster or, in some instances, returning in its wake. 

We already knew that the lives of many Americans are intertwined with animals. But amid the exigencies of catastrophes, we saw people live out their ideals of love, duty and decency again and again. We saw how deeply humans identify with the animals around them, and the lengths to which they are willing to go to protect these animals and to ease their suffering. 

In California, where the Camp Fire incinerated the town of Paradise and badly damaged nearby villages, displacing more than 50,000 people, residents scrambled to evacuate their pets and livestock.

At least one person died trying to save her animals during the blaze. The burnt carcasses of deer, elongated as if in mid-stride, lay on the shoulders of local roads. Hundreds of domesticated animals, many of them burned or otherwise harmed, were gently coaxed out of the wreckage. The effort to reunite animals with their owners, or to find them new homes, has proven slow and hard, and the Camp Fire pets and wildlife have become a vivid extension of the community’s vulnerability and pain. 

In the Great Plains, catastrophic river flooding last March killed thousands of cattle. The ranchers we met in northern Nebraska are unsentimental about livestock, which are, in the end, animals being raised for food. 

But during the flooding, the ranchers felt a moral responsibility for their cattle’s welfare. They thought their animals’ lives should follow a quiet arc that eventually ends in a swift, humane death. So they were rattled and exhausted by evidence of the suffering caused by the floods: calves had drowned after they tried to huddle on higher ground, bulls were mangled by bus-sized ice floes pushed across pastures by flooding rivers, cows had become so physically drained from an unusually cold winter that they couldn’t get up from the wet pastures during the floods and died of hypothermia. 

Fires, floods and hurricanes rip away all that you love and value. Yet in the aftermath we witnessed, whenever humans saved animals from disaster or brought them back home, they restored something essential within. When human survivors helped the animals who relied on them, they wrested back a measure of control from the havoc. People felt a bit more normal again, maybe more fully human again, when they attended to animals. Here, there was some small thing that they could fix, some goodness or hope they could find, even when everything else was destroyed.

“I couldn’t imagine how things would be if I’d lost Red,” Hal said, explaining why he did not let go of the cat during Hurricane Michael. “I put him in that position of being in the storm. Protecting them is our responsibility as human beings. That’s what we sign up for.”

Some Shelters Still Don’t Allow People With Pets

Lawmakers and emergency planners long ignored the fact that the intense bond between people and their pets can complicate evacuation, rescue and recovery efforts during weather-driven disasters. It took the deaths in 2005 of about 1,800 people during Hurricane Katrina and the abandonment of 104,000 animals to drive home the point.

Before Katrina, evacuation shelters generally did not allow pets, and rescue teams had no protocols on how to save people stranded in their homes if they insisted on bringing their animals along. Residents on the Gulf Coast faced wrenching choices as the waters rose: stay with their pets and risk their own lives, or get rescued but leave their pets behind. 

In New Orleans, the grim consequences of people’s decisions came to light in the brutal wake of Katrina. Surrounded by the slowly falling floodwaters, emaciated, muddy dogs were found chained to porches and fences, where fleeing owners had left them in the hope that someone would take care of them until they returned. Other dogs stood on rooftops, wedged themselves onto window sills, or sat atop cars. Cats kept a precarious balance on fence posts. 

Animals swam for hours, or clung to debris in the toxic floodwaters, until they were either rescued or drowned. People trapped in their homes spray-painted messages on their roofs to rescuers saying there were humans and animals inside. A 2006 survey found that 44 percent of people who chose not to evacuate before Katrina stayed because they didn’t want to leave their pets behind. 

Emergency planning has changed to take that into account. The U.S. Congress in 2006 passed a law requiring emergency management agencies to plan for evacuating people together with their pets. By 2018, 30 states and the District of Columbia had followed suit. Animal advocacy groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA strengthened their disaster response teams. 

But the protections are still patchwork: not every shelter in a community takes pets, just designated ones, and hotels can turn away people fleeing disaster with their animals. So far, in places such as hurricane-prone Florida, the need for emergency shelters that take pets still outstrips availability, in the end, endangering the lives of people.

The Deaths of Farm Animals Bring Their Own Trauma

Farmers and ranchers have a far different relationship with the livestock they raise for food than pet owners do with their dogs and cats. But they do not envision the lives of their cattle, horses and goats ending in a large-scale, brutal die-off when floods or fires scour the land. 

Nebraska endured an unusually wet year followed by a cold winter that froze the waterlogged earth. Waterways, too, had frozen several feet deep. When heavy rains and a sudden thaw came in mid-March, all that moisture flowed into rivers and creeks that eventually jumped their banks and pushed water and massive ice chunks across farmland, roads and towns. The flooding breached levees and dams and swamped communities miles away from the rivers’ normal course. Three people were killed, but the state estimated that $400 million in livestock perished, a blow to farmers and ranchers already grappling with the first wave of the U.S. trade war with China. 

At his ranch in Niobrara, Nebraska, Clint Pischel heeded the weather warnings that started to come in early March. Since he was a child, all Clint has known is ranching, and it was all he wanted to know. If other children saved money to buy video games, he used his savings to buy a calf he could raise. When he went out with friends, part of his mind would be going over what he needed to do the next day at the ranch. He liked the rhythm of the animals’ lives, the certainty to it and the variations that arise.

“One minute you’re calving, and then the next minute you’re taking them to grass,” he told Anna Belle and me. “The next thing you know, it’s a snap of a finger and you’re at the sale barn selling calves that year. And then you can turn cattle out to fall grazing and, you know, it’s a cycle. It’s the same cycle every year. But it’s always something different. And you’re never doing the same thing.”

On March 13, Clint worked in the driving rain with his family to get their herd of cattle up to higher pastures and away from fields along the river. But overnight, dozens of calves and a few other cattle slipped through the fencing and returned to the familiar riverside. Before the Pischels could retrieve them, the alert came: the Spencer Dam upriver from the ranch had been breached, and everyone needed to evacuate to higher ground immediately. 

When the swell from the busted dam reached the ranch, it exploded across the lower pastures where the calves had gone. Clint knew that in the few seconds it would have taken a bull to stand up from the ground, the flood would have overwhelmed him.

The water did not recede entirely for weeks, but Clint and his family went down sooner than that, when it was clear the flooding wouldn’t worsen, to get a look at the lower pasture. They found calves drowned in huts that during normal rains would have provided shelter. They found dead animals under and in between the debris and the slowly melting ice piles. Some animals, they figured, had been washed far away by the flood and would never be found. In all, they lost 59 calves, worth about $60,000, and other cattle as well.

The hardest part was taking the animals to what Clint called the dead pile. Each carcass had to be photographed for insurance purposes. Then the carcasses were put in a pile to be hauled away.

“You go up there and you just dump a whole grapple load of calves, or there’s a cow in there. You know, that’s hard seeing it,” Clint said in April, standing in the pasture where the animals had died. “All them calves were born throughout February. I remember putting that calf in a hot box [to keep it warm right after birth] at 3 a.m. in the middle of the night. And so, you put a lot of hard work into them, just to watch them get killed.”

The Santee Sioux reservation is about 14 miles from Clint’s ranch and sits higher on the rolling hills of northern Nebraska. The cattle there were safe from the river flooding. Still, at least 15 died during the heavy rains that touched off the mid-March flooding because they were drained from months of unrelenting cold, according to Leon Klug, a tribe member and manager of the ranch.

The month before the rains started was especially bad, Leon said. It rarely got above freezing and was often far below. “Cold weather takes all of their body fat and just burns it up to keep them alive. They need that body fat to keep them warm. They’re kind of like a human: after a while, the weather just takes a toll on you,” Leon said at the tribe’s barn while his son prepared formula to feed calves in a nearby pen. “I’ve never seen this in my life, to lose this many animals this time of year.”

In the pastures, Leon saw cows that couldn’t get back up because they were out of energy. Then he had some hard decisions to make. “I mean it makes you sick. I guess that’s all I can say about that. It’s depressing,” he said. “After a while, you start feeling sorry for them. So then, yes, you have to end it for them. That’s it. They ain’t gonna get up anymore again and so leaving them to lay there suffering, you just end it. It’s the only thing you can do.”

In Paradise, the Deepest Ties Some People Had Were With Pets

The deadliest, most destructive blaze in California history, the Camp Fire rose and spread with ruthless efficiency. A malfunction on electricity transmission lines in a steep gorge in the hamlet of Pulga sparked the blaze. All around, the land was primed to burn. Seasonal high winds gusted at almost 50 miles per hour, tossing embers miles ahead of the original fire onto vegetation dried to tinder after months with little rain. The fire began November 8, 2018, moving the equivalent of a football field per second, racing toward the towns nestled in the Butte County hills.

Many people had moved to the hills to escape something: the heat of California’s valleys, the high cost of urban living or, frequently, other humans. The yearning for solitude seemed commonplace in Paradise and the other towns on the ridge. The deepest ties that people had were often to their pets.

Dogs waited in a truck as residents of Paradise, California, returned to their wildfire-destroyed properties. Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Eighty-five people died in the Camp Fire, and more than 150,000 acres burned. The fire destroyed nearly all of Paradise. But a handful of buildings survived, including the sprawling Starbucks, which served as a community center of sorts for several months after the fire. One morning in February, I sat a couple of tables away from two women in late middle age who were discussing another woman they’d known. She had died in the Camp Fire because she went back into her house to get her animals.

“Why?!” one of them asked, leaning forward in anger. “Why would anyone do that?”

The other woman looked at her for a few seconds, seemingly astonished that her friend understood so little. “Because for lots of people here,” she said, “that’s all they have.”

‘I Wouldn’t Have Made it Without Her’

When Anna Belle and I met Jill David, 63, four months after the Camp Fire, she talked in short sentences in a voice flattened by fatigue. Whenever she recounted the most difficult moments, she didn’t look at us but reached down to pet her dog Ivy, a cheerful three-year-old black pit bull mix. Ivy kept offering toys to Jill in the hopes of starting a game of tug-of-war, and Jill would sometimes half-heartedly join in and give the toy a little pull back.

At 6:30 a.m. on November 8, Jill had looked out the window of her mobile home in Paradise and saw an orange sky, which meant a big fire was coming. She knew about big fires. Ten years earlier, she’d fled one in neighboring Concow that destroyed parts of the village, including her home. This time, Jill grabbed Ivy and a few possessions and jumped in a neighbor’s car to evacuate, scared but hopeful that the fire would stop before it got to her place.

It didn’t stop. Instead, it melted her trailer down into ash mixed with long strands of fiberglass. And her best friend died in a traffic accident during the chaotic evacuation. When she spoke of her grief in losing him, Jill made sure we knew that Ivy loved him, too.

On a fixed income, Jill, now homeless, had to move in with her son, who lives with three roommates in Chico, a small city down the mountain from Paradise. Her allotted space is in the living room. At one end of the room are two worn dirty beige couches, alongside which are all her belongings stuffed into mismatched luggage and black garbage bags.

At the other end, in a corner, is a chest-high mound of the four men’s empty beer cans. The walls are festooned with banners for different IPA beers. A coaster on the coffee table reads, “Let’s get ready to stumble.” The apartment smells like, and its surfaces feel like, 2 o’clock in the morning at the most popular pub in town.

Jill’s chances of finding a new home and leaving her son’s couches would improve if she didn’t have a dog. Some survivors of the Camp Fire surrendered their pets to shelters as a last resort in order to secure housing. But without Jill saying so, Anna Belle and I knew that was not going to happen.

As Anna Belle and I spoke with Jill, her son’s roommates wandered in and out. To have any privacy, Jill retreats to the bathroom. “I still feel helpless. I don’t have any control over my life right now,” she told us. “It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s unfair. I had my own place. I was in control of my own place. I have no control over anything except what I say. Nobody should have to go through it.”

Months of frustration and the start of tears crept into her voice. Ivy trotted up, whining, pushing her head under Jill’s hands, the way dogs do. “I’m ok,” she said, maybe to us, maybe to Ivy.

“She’s very empathetic,” Jill said, with a short laugh, stroking the satiny black head. “I wouldn’t have made it without her. I have someone to talk to, somebody to console me. Love me unconditionally. Who can beat that?”

The sunny afternoon was slipping into evening, and Anna Belle and I asked if we could join Jill and Ivy on their walk. Jill gently declined. She was done talking. She needed the space a walk outside would give her, her own quiet realm, and the only one allowed in was Ivy.

Top photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images. Second photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images