Schlepping Through The Worst-Case Scenarios
I generally like to discuss cat-schlepping as an activity one might choose to undertake for the sheer delight of it — an exercise in exploring feline curiosity and companionship in fresh air. Some folks, I’m well aware, will dismiss this as sheer whimsy. Some will scorn it. Some of these frowny folks may just dislike cats. Others may like cats very much, and feel very strongly about keeping them indoors. I can hear this last type now: “I’d never take my cat outside, and certainly never schlep it about. That’s demented.”
Well, you can’t win ’em all.
Even so, to all you dismissers of cat-schlepping out there, let me ask you a question — what about the times when leaving the house isn’t a choice? What about when ‘adventure’ (that very broad catch-all for anything unexpected) comes looking for you? What about situations when taking your cat outside is no longer a matter of choice, but a matter of life and death?
Aífe and I have moved many times in the last five and a half years that we’ve been each other’s forever homes. We’ve relocated across states and continents and oceans, for a host of reasons I could never have seen coming. And while I wasn’t always happy about the choices I was faced with, I always had choices… and fair warning. Which makes us very lucky; a lot of the major life events in this world come with neither choice nor warning. Some occurrences we call tough luck, others, disaster.
And we rarely think they will happen to us, until they do. Homelessness can happen to anyone; landlords can be dicks, jobs can fall through, and spouses can be breathtakingly cruel. Fires can break out in a second in any neighborhood, remove all evidence of your life in minutes. Earthquakes, floods, tornados, landslides, avalanches, and tsunamis operate a scale at which humans, cats, and all other creatures are incidental. Riots, civil wars, and genocides can and do pop up in every corner of the populated world, at one time or another. I would therefore strongly advise every cat owner, no matter how nonplussed by my cat-liberation mission, to be prepared to schlep in a pinch.
I personally am always expecting a disaster. I’ve got fight or flight reflexes like a neurotic ninja. I’m pretty sure they were hardwired that way by my childhood. Growing up in Alaska, earthquakes were a huge, ongoing fact of life (along with avalanches, bears, hypothermia, power outages…). If you drove to the edge of our tiny town, you could see gray, rotting tree trunks poking up out of the Cook Inlet, an indicator of where our town used to be, before the 1964 earthquake dropped it down below water level. At the same time, I grew up in a house where fights were loud and ongoing, and often seemed to spring out of nowhere. There were many instances of one parent or another taking off alone, or packing my brother and I into a car, saying “Come on kids. We’re leaving.” Even after I left Alaska, and later left home, I spent most of my life in the midst of either earthquake country or dodgy relationships. I also spent a lot of it studying feminist theory and global politics (genocide, rape, torture, disease, and so on). I’m guessing this combination drilled one very important fact into my brain: that even the things I wanted to believe were solid, like love, law & order, and the land, could buckle right below you in an instant.
The horrific Fukushima earthquake/ nuclear meltdown took place in March, 2011, just a few months after I had moved to the earthquake death-trap peninsula that is beautiful San Francisco. As a result, I thought about earthquakes a lot for the next couple of years that I lived there. I got an earthquake kit together with supplies for the both myself and Aífe (food, first aid, water, long underwear, etc). When I was at work, I would often find myself sitting at my desk, trying to visualize the various routes I could take to get back home to Aífe, should the ‘big one’ finally hit. I even took days off work to participate in the SF Fire Department’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Team training.
Thankfully, the big one still hasn’t come, and the entire West Coast of America has yet to drop into the ocean. Even so, the news in the last year has been full of epic flooding from Missouri to Manchester to Beijing, with vast wildfires across the US and Canada, mass migrations across the Middle East, and now with Brexit, the possibility of forced migrations through Europe. So we shall see what our planet and politics have in store for us all, but I would be prepared to schlep, if not swim.
Because we’ve seen what happens when folks aren’t ready for disaster, and the shocking fallout for our animals. We saw it most clearly eleven years ago, in New Orleans, with Hurricane Katrina. Emergency services refused to let any animals onto any evacuation vehicles, literally ripping them out of children’s hands in some instances. Authorities instructed people to leave their animals kenneled and caged at home, to be collected when things calmed down in a couple of days or so. Things obviously didn’t work out that way, and as a direct result of these policies, many hundreds of thousands of animals were killed or left stranded in that disaster. The estimates vary between 500,000 and 600,000 pets in total. Imagine, half a million beloved pets drowning, suffocating, burning, or starving to death. Just in one emergency, in one city. Fucking horrific, right?
Yes. It was a cluster-fuck so egregious that even the American Congress got it together to do something in its wake. A bill was both introduced and passed thru bipartisan collaboration; meaning that this was something that so appalled both Democrats and Republicans that they were willing to work together to address it — and when does that happen?
The “Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act” of 2006 stated that every city in America must make provisions for animals in their emergency response and evacuation plans. Which is why all City of San Francisco department websites that have anything to say about emergency services lead you to information about pet emergency preparedness, which includes the following guidance:
It is generally not recommended that you leave your pet behind during an evacuation. If you must, follow these guidelines to help ensure your pet’s safety.
- Post a highly visible sign in a window to let rescue workers know how many pets were left behind.
- The date you left on front door with chalk, paint or marker.
- Leave plenty of water in a large, open container that cannot be tipped over.
- Leave plenty of food in timed feeders (check local pet supply stores). These will prevent your pet from overeating.
- Do not tie or cage your pet! The chances for survival are greater if he/she can escape easily.
This is an absolute sea-change in policy, and thank goodness. Look guys, sometimes we can learn from our mistakes! Huzzah!
So let’s say you and your animal(s) escape a disaster, are evacuated from your home and do not know if or when you will be able to go back. What do you do? Where do you seek refuge? The Red Cross and most other emergency shelters don’t accept pets. Homeless shelters don’t usually, either. Most hotels don’t take pets, and most that say that they are ‘pet friendly’ will only take dogs, not cats. Many bus and train systems don’t animals either. Further pet preparedness materials advise that while finding refuge that allows pets may be difficult, “A calm, well-trained pet, which is either on leash, or in a carrier, will be more welcome wherever you go.” Ha! Cat-schlepping doesn’t sound so goddamn silly now, does it?
Okay, but what if you’re making an emergency schlep where even you as a human being may not find welcome? What if you find yourself in a crisis so big, so horrific, and so ongoing, that you have to flee your whole country? The peoples of any land can become displaced, but I’m thinking particularly of Syrian refugees, since there are nearly five million of them at the moment (and several more millions displaced within the country). The media has enjoyed running pieces on several Syrians attempting to bring their pets with them to Europe. Last spring there was a particularly popular photograph going around, featuring a young Syrian man who had made it all the way from Syria to Greece while schlepping a kitten that he’d tied to his chest in a fleecy homemade sling — a tiny, brown tabby whose coloring and ears and markings very much matched my own Aífe’s when she was that young. I was, of course, fascinated.
And other, presumably non-cat-schlepping humans were intrigued as well, because several follow up stories have appeared since then on Buzzfeed and the like. The man was Moner Al Kadri, and the cat was Zaytouna (meaning ‘olive’, symbol of peace). Once they reached Germany, Zaytouna was taken away and put into quarantine, while the man and his wife, Nadia, were put into a refugee camp. Moner told reporters in one interview that he had been told Zaytouna was being fostered “with some German family until we can find a flat here.” So again, no pets in the refugee shelters.
Eventually, the couple were offered accommodation in a local German couple’s home. And then one day, a veterinarian from a government-sponsored animal shelter showed up at their door with Zaytouna. It turns out the cat had been at the shelter, not in a family’s home. Moner reported that the vet told him that “in most cases when people bring their pets from Syria they just kill the animal.” Moner wasn’t told why they had spared Zaytouna, but I would bet you it is simply because it would be a goddamn PR mess for the German government to kill one of the most tweeted kittens of the year and an inadvertent symbol of hope in the refugee crisis. I mean, it wouldn’t be great for Germany’s image of benevolence to be discovered gassing a refugee kitten. Which, according to that vet, they are doing, as a matter of routine — just not the most famous one.
I’ve done a lot of research on traveling internationally with Aífe, and it’s pretty standard for governments to reserve the right to ‘confiscate’ animals who don’t have the appropriate paperwork at border crossings. Indeed, it’s standard to have government-run shelters that kill heaps of their native homeless animals as well. I get that these are the facts of life, but still — to lose everything in your life except your kitten, and somehow keep yourself and it alive across warzone and rubber raft ride, only to have it taken away and killed upon arrival — it just seems too heartless for words.
I haven’t found any updates on Moner, Nadia, and Zaytouna since Christmas 2015, so I hope they’re all still together and doing okay.
Whatever end of the earth you’re coming from, you may find yourself needing to leave the house quite quickly, and you may never be able to go back. And if you’re like me, your family — which absolutely includes your critters — is your first concern. Which means that being able to schlep your cat off swiftly may prove crucial to you one day. So even if you’ve no interest in schlepping your cat in a spirit of sheer delightfulness, I hope you will take steps to be able to schlep it out of scenarios of absolute dreadfulness.