But What About My Pets?

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Elektra is one of the survivors.
My companion female Solomon Islands eclectus parrot, Eclectus roratus solomonensis.
Image: GrrlScientist, 2 April 2008 [larger view].


I want to talk about something that has bothered me ever since I spent nearly five months in the hospital: what happens to your companion animals when you are suddenly not there to take care of them? If you live alone and don’t have a local support system, as is true for me, then this is a very real problem, as I became painfully aware of nearly two years ago.
According to US census statistics, I am not unusual: roughly 27.2 million Americans lived alone in 2000 (26% of all households and about 9.7% of the overall U.S. population), and a much larger percentage of Manhattanites lived alone (354,336 people, or approximately 48% of all households in Manhattan). This is a growing problem since fifty years ago, only 9.3% of U.S. households consisted of people living alone, according to the Census Bureau. At least some of these people who live alone have companion animals, and therein lies the problem: what happens to a person’s companion animals if he or she suddenly is unable to be there to care for them?
At the time that I was hospitalized, I was fully aware of my parrots’ vulnerability, and searched for someone to care for them. Eventually, after one week of searching, I found someone who was recommended to me and who looked good on paper. She was a veterinary technician who claimed she would be paid by a funding agency associated with the hospital that covered pet care costs for unemployed and impoverished people (like me) and those who lived on fixed incomes. Well, after nearly five months in the hospital, the tragic deaths of two of my beloved parrots (one was a parrot that I handfed from a few weeks old and the other was only eight months old!), and a lawsuit filed against me by the caregiver for thousands of dollars in unpaid pet care costs, I learned that I was actually lied to by a person who is, at best, an incompetent and ignorant vet tech and businessperson. Sadly, this painful experience and the resulting guilt still resonates through my life to this very day.
I am not alone because there are horror stories out there .. stories about people who are hospitalized and whose pets are left behind to languish .. and die. Can you imagine anything worse than surviving some sort of emergency only to return home to find some or all your companion animals either dead or rehomed (or euthanized!) after they were “rescued” by the local animal shelter?
So I am curious to know what, if any, measures have been enacted in your communities to protect the welfare of companion animals whose owners are unable to return home due to some sort of emergency? What about the companion animals of those who are financially challenged or living on a fixed income? What agencies have been set up to address these problems? Who cares for these animals? How are these caregivers paid?
I am also interested to know what sorts of information you have posted in your apartment or home regarding emergency animal care for your pets? Where is it located? Do you also carry this information in your wallet so emergency medical people can find it in the horrible event that you are run over by a taxi while in a crosswalk and are unconscious for two days, for example?
I ask because I am interested to set up this sort of thing up here in Manhattan. If such an agency already exists here, then I would like to know this, too (they certainly did not exist two years ago, or if they did, no one knew about it such that I could have relied on them). Since there are so many people here who live alone and who probably do not know their neighbors well, I think that Manhattan would be a great place to start such an agency, so I am seeking your advice and knowledge about how people deal with this sort of situation when it arises, what you suggest regarding this idea, and what your plans are regarding emergency pet care?

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About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to But What About My Pets?

  1. Tabor says:

    I no longer have pets but will probably in the future. This sounds to me like a great Internet project like so many others where people in local communities register online to volunteer to care for pets and/or need care for a pet. People could meet ahead of time if they are local. It is not a permanent or secure solution, but certainly a start.

  2. heidi says:

    The closest critter alert system that I’m aware of is the “in case of fire, save my pet!” window sticker – regardless of whether or not the emergency is human or animal, there needs to be another option! I returned from a 2 week trip nearly 2 months ago and the family taking care of the Cockatiel they were so fond of had neglected to inform me that one of her eyes was swollen completely shut and she was on the bottom of the cage, not doing anything. I wouldn’t have asked more than simply feeding and watering the bird, but I’d kept in touch while on the road and returned to find the critter’s vent completely blocked and one of the worst looking sinus infections I’ve ever seen. Vet number was posted on the fridge… I guess people don’t realize that by the time a bird shows any sign of illness it’s almost too late. /rant
    I’m an emergency contact for a few people, I’m in their wills for their birds (yikes), but right now I’m also 8 driving hours away from them. Among other things, it’s why I don’t have a pet right now (‘tiel saga continues, yes, but officially she’s not even my bird). My next question is this: in case of human emergency, how well does the responding team need to be prepared? Is it enough for them to know type of pet, or name of pet, or special needs of pet? So they do know – do they have a house key? How do they get in or who do they contact? If you have 5 middle men, how fast can the response time be? For the longest time I’d send a bulk e-mail to family before traveling with a list of emergency numbers and such, in case they didn’t hear from me at least every other day. Still, having emergency numbers in CA, TX and IL don’t really help if you’re in MI.

  3. Barn Owl says:

    Who needs fireworks on the Fourth of July, when you have beautiful Elektra, in her natural red, blue, and (a bit of) white?
    You might consider tapping into the network of people who already foster dogs, cats, ferrets, birds, and other companion animals before they are adopted. Most such people I know always seem to have room, and are pretty knowledgeable about animals.
    I’m lucky in that I have several friends in town who could care for my dog and my horses, and my family is only a 3-hour drive away (they could deal with the dog, but not the horses). When I lived in a different part of this state, I had a friend whose horse had a bad habit of bolting off the field unexpectedly after a game, and in one such instance fell on a hard-packed gravel road. I ended up splitting my time between my friend, who had a broken arm and a lot of soft tissue damage from the accident, and his horse, who was pretty banged up as well, and needed to be hand-walked for 20-30 minutes every day. People who are recovering from injuries or illnesses certainly don’t need any added anxiety, so it’s a great idea to set up networks to care for their pets.

  4. Melissa Wallace says:

    if you start an organization to help care for pets of the disabled i’d like to know and help in the future.i have trusted neighbors to help me if i go away,etc but i feel for the plight of NYCers who do not

  5. Carrie says:

    How absolutely horrifying that you lost your pets during such a difficult time in your life. Shame on that unscrupulous woman! I hope that if you haven’t already, you complain to the Better Business Bureau and the vet tech licensing board in your state and anyone else that will listen.
    I carry emergency information about my pets (7 birds) in my wallet and who to contact. The ASPCA also offers free placard stickers for you to put on your windows so that in the event of a fire or other catastrophe emergency personnel may be able to save them.

  6. Arnold says:

    Here’s the problem I have here-
    There are significant assumptions made here- That everyone who lives alone has no support system, and they have not made any plans in case of emergency.
    You’re projecting your own circumstances and experiences onto every other single bird owner. A family of 4 could easily come across an unscrupulous caregiver when they go on a week’s vacation, and come home to a nightmare scenario. Being single really doesn’t matter when one is scammed or unprepared.
    And to assume a person has absolutely no friends at all who’d be willing to step up, I just don’t find plausible either. There are people online, people we chat with daily who we know care about birds, where a person could find at least one to come and help.
    How could a bird owner in Manhattan truly be completely alone? There are a number of online and in-person bird clubs. I have found actually, bird and pet owners do step up and help in times of emergency. Even in New York, more people than not still have a sense of being a good neighbor.
    And many metro areas, such as New York, do have plentiful Bird Boarding services available. If there’s truly a person who is all alone out there, then they, I’m sure, could easily setup something with one of these profesional Boarders for the ‘what if’ happening. I can’t imagaine it being a difficult thing to arrange.
    As for low income bird owners, I also think it’s rather grossly elitist thinking to assume someone on a fixed income has no thought of care for their animal, to make arrangements in case of emergency, or that they have no friends who could step in and help temporarily. Afflac insurance covers pet expenses too, when someone is put out of work. Afflac has programs to help arrange for various care needs in case of emergencies and missed income.
    The bottom line problem I have with this subject line, is there are blanket assumptions made, rather than factual. You can present the worst case scenarios, of coarse they exist, but they are also the rare exceptions. Prove otherwise.
    So why does “Another agency” need to be established? really? Why does a local government or agency have to get involved with every facet of one’s life? Sure there are horror stories, but it’s quite unreasonable to make those out to be the norm. The horror stories can come, even to those who plan for every contingency and have loads of cash spilling from under their mattress. I just wish people would stop worrying about what their neighbor is or isn’t doing, and just take care of their own business.
    The fact is, as you’ve laid out here, you, and you alone were the one unprepared here. Being a scientific thinker, shouldn’t you have thought about these things in advance? And because you feel guilty now, how does that justify the concern for what others do or don’t do?
    Anyway, I didn’t want this to come across as an attack either. Personally, I’m just getting to the point where I am so sick of everyone worried about my business, or my neighbors’ business, when they got their own birds and their own business to worry about aplenty. I’m tired of a constant stream of new laws designed to nanny and micro-manage every aspect of my behavior, or what kind of pet I can or can’t have.
    The evolutionary outcome of even this subject, is that Nobody should own a Bird as a pet, Period. That way no birds will ever be put in harms way, ever. At least not by a human. And I don’t find that an acceptable eventuality.
    A
    The fact will always remain, Crap happens. There are always going to be people out there who don’t care about there animals, or their family, or themselves. But those situations are not the norm. And I just don’t believe the worry over a single person or low income person owning a pet bird is truly warranted at all.
    Good day-

  7. Julie Stahlhut says:

    Huh? Arnold, do you realize that the writer of this blog was hospitalized in an emergency situation, and for a prolonged period of time, due to serious illness? Are you suggesting that people need to plan their health problems better? (Wow, stupid me, to have developed an illness that caused me constant pain right about the time I finished grad school. I should have planned it so that I didn’t need major surgery at a time when it would delay my job search. Good thing I don’t have pets, because obviously someone who ever gets sick is too irresponsible to have them.)
    You don’t seem to understand that the problem is not simply that of a misfortune befalling a single bird — it’s the need for better options for people who are trying to do the very best for their companion animals under all circumstances. The author of this blog is making constructive suggestions for how to improve the situation. She is sharing her own painful memories because she wants to keep other people and other animals from going through this.
    And just because someone is your friend does not mean that the person is either able or willing to care for your animals. Some of us have animal allergies, live in places that forbid pets, or simply don’t have the time or experience to be good pet-sitters. The idea is not simply to find either a friend or an employee — it’s to find a person who would be competent and responsible at taking care of your pets during your absence, whether the arrangement is for pay, for friendship, or both.
    (GrrlS. — good luck with this. Keep us all posted as to how it works out!)

  8. Arnold says:

    At some point in life, everyone deals with some kind of emergency. Truth be told, these emergencies, over a lifetime, pop up frequently even. Crap never happens when you want it to. And I’m not making light of what happened to her. Only saying, her nightmare caregiver scenario could easily have happened to a wealthy knowledgable family too.
    And simply asking, is it the scientific factual basis to assume a need exists to micro-manage other single and/or low income pet owners?
    I was simply stating, I don’t believe a need exists for a community to come up with another new program or law, when people, rich or poor, single or coupled, need to just take care of their own business and let others take care of theirs. If we all just took care of our own business, and did plan to some degree for our own eventualities, we wouldn’t have to worry about what others are or aren’t doing.
    I was only pointing out, that options already exist and can easily be found with a little effort.
    And while yes, many of us have “anti-pet” friends; Those of us in “birds” should know at least one competant friend too, especially if we live in a very large metro area.

  9. speedwell says:

    Arnold, it’s a sad day when a “card carrying” atheist anarcho-capitalist Ayn Rand fan has to lecture someone about compassion and community. That day has come. I need only mention to you that the best way to keep the nanny state from poking its “lang neb” into the affairs of private individuals is to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT YOURSELF.
    You are hereby challenged to start an emergency caregiver association in your hometown that provides care to the pets of its members. Since you will be the founder and presumably one of the board members, it should be relatively easy for you to see that the bylaws include provisions forbidding the theft of pets from their people. As you are aware, channels already exist to take up the plight of pets who are permanently abandoned or mistreated. Your organization should focus on helping people and animals who are having a hard time and need temporary assistance.

  10. Arnold says:

    “The only freedom deserving the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” –John Stuart Mill

  11. Tziporah says:

    I have parrots in my apartment and have a friend from across the street who will take care of them if I have an emergency.
    I agree with the idea of an on-line search for NYC area parrot groups who might know of people who can be trusted to responsibly take care of pets in case of emergency or a planned vacation.
    GrrlScientist, you are a caring person and excellent Bird Mom. Thanks for discussing this important topic.

  12. randy says:

    GrrlScientist,
    Sharing the sad experience you went thru with your pets and warning others what could happen if prior plans are not made for emergencies is the best way to honor your lost pets. Thanks. I am a parrot owner and realize how trusting and vulnerable they are and how easily they can perish. I have no idea where Arnold is coming from. There seemed to be a valid point embedded in alot of unnecessarily hostile hubris.

  13. Arnold says:

    Please, point out what’s actually hostile?
    This is a “scientific” blog, right?
    What scientist out there expects not to be challenged on their assertions simply because of sympathy? She states this happened years ago too.
    I’m not trying or wanting to be hostile or attack. I’m simply wanting the factual inherent crisis to warrant the need for another agency, new laws, or government intervantion?
    Why can’t people just be responsible for their own business?
    Why is it assumed single and low income people don’t plan for eventualities?
    And to comment on another reply- How is setting up an entity with a Board of Directors and bylaws more compassionate, then simply offering to help as an individual? I have found historically, something requiring a Board helps very little and often too late, and yet requires the need for endless fund-raising. If people were just good neighbors, whatever few people did find themselves un-prepared, could surely find needed help within the bird community.
    In posts past, the author of this blog has stated she is on the lists of others from whom she will get their birds in case of emergency.
    And again, Bird Boarding already exists, and one simply has to make arrangements prior to an emergency ever taking place. Afflac insurance will even pay for that kennel care too while a person is layed up.
    If the article had said rather, this is what happened to me, if you are single or low income then you should think about making plans, so what happened to me, doesn’t happen to you, I would have applauded. These kinds of reminders and wake up calls are always a good thing.
    But the article tries to make the case that there’s an inherent need for “another” agency or that some kind of measures need to be enacted to protect birds from low income and single owners.
    I do have sympathy for what happened to her birds and her. What she went through was a nightmare without question.
    I just don’t believe there is justification to single out single people or low-income based on her experience, or even 3 or 4 other examples. The nightmare she went through could happen to anybody, not just a single or low income person. Nobody is ever truly ‘prepared’ for the worst to happen.
    And again, please point out the actual hostility?
    In my day scientists were a little more thick-skinned and actually desired some debate. Guess those days are gone, and facts become facts just by saying they’re facts.

  14. heidi says:

    on a rather unrelated note – critter care in case of rapture, from “best of” on CL http://www.craigslist.org/about/best/ksc/725674463.html