Hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and other natural disasters are scary stuff. Getting caught in one of these chaotic events is a disorienting experience ripe with the potential for panic. But panic is the last thing Ines De Pablo wants you to do, especially if you're responsible for an animal. That's why De Pablo founded Wag'N Enterprises, a company dedicated to preparing pet owners, businesses and rescuers with the tools and skills to take on natural disasters and keep the animals safe.
De Pablo admits that she gets an unusual enjoyment out of thinking of the worst case scenario, but it is only because "it challenges the mind to find a solution." She has been welcoming this challenge for a while. Originally from Switzerland, De Pablo moved to the United States for school, first getting a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice followed by a Master's in Emergency Management. While working in D.C., De Pablo watched as New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. As the aftermath unfolded, she was stunned by the lack of consideration given to pets and decided then that something needed to be done. In 2007, De Pablo founded Wag'N Enterprises. Four years later, Wag'N offers a variety of supplies, classes and emergency training. Animal enthusiast De Pablo was happy to share her story with us.
First off, do you have pets?
I have to two dogs. Gypsy is a Husky, Lab, English Setter Mix. The other one is Mayday. She is a German Shepard, Belgian Tervuren, Shih Tzu mix. Her name is Mayday because the shelter misdiagnosed her litter with Parvo. I met her when she was 10 weeks, but they don’t release puppies until 12 weeks. During week 11, I called to see if the spaying had been done. They said, "No. You also can't pick her up because we are going to put them all down.”
I asked if it was okay if I picked Mayday up since the shelter was going to put her down anyway. I had her put into quarantine for a week at the local vet and she didn't have Parvo.
She was lucky, but there were already two other dogs called Lucky at my dog park. I figured that “Mayday” was a good name for her. When you scream “Mayday Mayday” at the dog park you get people’s attention!
Obviously you are a friend to animals. Have you been a pet lover since childhood?
Yes! My grandfather lived in southern France and he had friends over there, so every summer we would go. They had a farm and it had lots of bunnies. Every summer I made a new bunny friend. I'd name the bunnies, and the next year I would come and ask where the bunnies were. As a kid, I couldn’t understand how anyone could eat rabbit.
My family would just say, “Uh yeah, they didn’t make it.” When I turned eight, it finally clicked that they were at the farm as food and that they would never make it. I went to my parents absolutely ballistic, crying about saving all the bunnies. They just said, “Sorry honey. They are farmers. tThey need to keep their bunnies.”
I also begged my parents for years to get a dog. By the time I reached 13, we moved into a bigger house and my parents finally got one. My first dog was a Mini Schnauzer. When I moved to the U.S I wasn’t allowed to bring her, because my parents said I was there to study. So I got a cat. I am a sucker for animals.
Tell us about Wag'N. What are your goals?
The idea all along was to get the standard cycle of emergency management -- which is mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery -- into the animal kingdom. Whether it is a pet owner, doggie day care or a store that sells pets, we wanted them to be prepared.
If all of the sudden you have a gas leak, how do you evacuate the pets and your staff? At a doggie day care, if a fire or something happens you need to evacuate. We are trying to get them to learn how they can avoid some emergencies and how they can prepare for others. This includes themselves, their staff and their facility.
I understand that people don’t always like to prepare. It’s hard to sell the idea of: 'Okay, now go home and prepare an evacuation kit.' Right around Katrina it was easy to tell people to get ready. But as time goes by, people forget and get back into their routine. So we make things like evacuation kits for them. All they have to do is add food and personal items to it. By the time they get it in the mail it's just a few steps more and they're ready.
You mentioned Hurricane Katrina as the event that inspired you to make a change. What about that disaster motivated you to start this program?
During Hurricane Katrina there were people that stayed behind with their pets specifically because they knew that they didn’t have a plan out of town that accepted pets. When it was finally made obvious that certain areas needed to be evacuated, the National Guard showed up in a tank saying, "You are leaving and you can't take the dog with you. That's just the way it is."
There was a news [story] about an elderly blind lady in her eighties that had a service dog. The National Guard showed up and told her, "You’ve got to go and the dog’s not coming." Not only were they breaking federal law, because you cannot separate a service dog from its handler, but the women became really upset. She knew she couldn’t go anywhere without her service dog. So this old, blind woman goes into one her drawers, pulls out a huge revolver and starts aiming it blindly at the room and they all jumped her. That made me scream. I was so mad. How do you separate this 88-year-old woman from her service dog? Does it kill you to take the dog with you? And I thought we cannot let this happen again. This story really triggered me. It still does.
What do you find is the biggest misconception pet owners and businesses have when it comes to pet safety in emergency situations?
People think that because a disaster hasn't happened and the standard procedures are currently working that those procedures will still be working during an emergency. A lot of pet care and doggie day care places, especially doggie day cares, are not thinking about things like a health outbreak or a fire.
Some places will have one handler per five dogs, other places will have one handler per ten dogs. Well that’s great in a room, but it might not work in an emergency. For example, now there's a fire and you have one handler with five dogs and, where do you go? You can’t go back in; how do you contact the owners?
It’s about educating the owners of the facilities to have a plan in place and to be prepared should something happen. But if places take all the adequate preparedness measures, they should be able to mitigate most emergencies.
Many people were concerned about the safety of Manhattan's animals during Hurricane Irene. In the long run, New York was less affected, but are there certain factors that should be considered when you are a pet owner in a city?
First of all, if you can, don’t move into a flood plain. You are more likely to live in a high-rise, which means you have to think of flying debris.
In Manhattan you are limited, so it doesn’t hurt to think of all the possible escape routes out of the city. Remember 9/11. Most people evacuated through the bridges and just walked. At the same time, when you’re under attack, you don’t know if something is going to mess up the infrastructure of the bridge. Is that your only way? I don’t like to think like a sheep. If I see a thousand people go one way, I’ll go the other. Not by contradiction, but maybe I have a better plan, or I’m trying to figure out the best option.
As for animals, it's always the same. For all hazards you need air, safety, cover, food and water. You always put the same stuff into your go-bag.
Do you find that pets, like many wild animals, have a sense about natural disaster?
Absolutely! The day of the most recent east coast earthquake I was in the office -- we were moving to a new location -- packing boxes. I was near the entrance and there was a barber shop under us and there were kids running up and down the stairs so my dogs were barking. Finally I got them to be quiet, but a little later, the dogs both rose and started barking at the same time. I was like, “NO!” I thought they were barking because of the kids still. I didn’t finish that thought before the whole office started shaking like crazy.
They felt it. Animals absolutely feel it. They hear and feel things way ahead of time. They can smell and hear better than us. Animals are just very much in tune with the vibrations of the planet. If you see a pack of bears or any kind of wildlife make one rash decision and start moving away from [a spot] that is when you should start running, too.
What are some differences you find working with animals instead of humans?
They are much more forgiving. Any animal in pain or put into pain will bite. But that being said, they don’t hold a grudge. They are very happy once they figure out you are not going to inflict more harm on them. They will usually let go and surrender to you. That is a general statement, don’t get me wrong. But as a majority, pets are much more forgiving than people. They don’t expect anything, just love and care from their owners. We expect a lot from our EMTs. We expect them to be on time, to not screw up, to not scratch us, to be quick. And it’s okay if we yell at them, because we are in pain and they just need to suck it up. Animals don’t do that. They don’t judge us.
How would you suggest someone get involved in emergency management for pets?
The best tip, especially in this economy, is to consider joining your local community emergency response team. They are called CERT teams. It’s free and most CERT teams will assign you a back pack and the basic tools. If you go through those classes they introduce you to incident command and to understanding how first-responders think. CERT will teach you that the first-responders' first responsibility is keeping themselves safe, the second is their partner, then their families and lastly the victims. When you think of yourself as a first-responder, it puts things in perspective.
Most CERT teams run tons of drills. It is a 6-8 week long training where you meet up once a week with classroom time and then some technical drills. This way you can learn the basics of medical care and triage. You get free workshops, free training, free gear and then you can help yourself and your community.
You might not know anything about emergency management, but by the end of that course you should be able to handle yourself during any emergency. Once you know how to handle yourself, your family and your household, the pet is just another aspect. Plus, after you graduate CERT you will have an amazing go-bag.
If you could offer pet owners one piece of advice about dealing with emergency situations, what would it be?
Remain calm. You can’t mitigate 100%, so when something happens don’t panic. Panic has never extinguished a fire. Ever. Screaming at the fire will not turn it off. That’s just a rule. We can all make a difference if we are calm and collected, and we can only be calm and collected if we’re trained.
Get as much training as possible. Think outside the box. Challenge yourself at home. Let’s say you are watching TV tonight and all of a sudden you have someone in the family scream “Fire!” Just try it out. There is no point in creating a plan if you don’t rehearse it. During the height of hurricane season, you’ll have all these different organizations reminding people to get prepared. The one thing they are failing to remind people is that if you don’t rehearse your plan you might as well not bother making one. Challenge yourself to think about the worse case scenario.