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High Tide: Animals and Natural Disaster

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Toto didn’t warn Dorothy that they were about to be swept off to Oz, but there is a general belief—to some extent supported by science—that animals can sense natural disasters ahead of time.

Often noted in historical accounts, this phenomenon was more recently remarked upon at the time of the 2005 Sri Lankan tsunami, when a number of sources reported that the local animals, “seemed to know what was about to happen and fled to safety,” as Maryann Mott reported in a 2005 National Geographic News article called “Did Animals Sense Tsunami Was Coming?”

Among the behaviors reported were elephants fleeing; dogs refusing to go outdoors, flamingos abandoning their breeding grounds and zoo animals rushing inside for shelter. 

Tuesday’s 5.8 earthquake also had people wondering, and the National Zoo at the Smithsonian Institution, not far from the quake’s Mineral, Virginia epicenter, issued a detailed report about the responses of animals in their care, including gorillas abandoning their food and moving higher ground, shrieking lemurs, howling monkeys, alarmed elks, and writhing snakes.

Closer to home, Jim Breheny, Senior Vice President of the World Conservation Society’s Living Institutions and Director of Bronx Zoo, issued the following statement: “Knowing what we know about animals and our collective years of experience in managing and observing them, there is no doubt that animals may have sensed some aspect of the quake. They routinely react to upcoming storms, changes in barometric pressure, and the like.”

And responding to our inquiry, Dr. Patrick Thomas, General Curator of the Zoo, expanded, “For the majority of species, we don’t know precisely what it is that enables them to sense events. For some species (e.g., elephants) it could be detecting seismic vibrations. For others, it could be hearing sounds that occur outside of our range of hearing.”

The topic was actually the subject of a 2005 documentary on Nature, “Can Animals Predict Disaster,” which interviewed a number of wildlife researchers and scientists about animals’ abilities, and how they can be harnessed to provide more warnings to humans.

One, Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, described the elephant as this “amazing infrasound detecting machine,” feeling vibrations through its vast but sensitive feet and febrile trunk. Another, geologist Jim Berkland, claimed to have discovered a consistent correlation between missing pets and the timing of earthquakes. (Portions of the work can be viewed on You Tube.)

Other heightened senses also come into play, suggesting that animals’ relationship to nature is less blunted and mediated than our own, giving them a distinct advantage when the earth is about to move under their feet—or ours. 

Saving for a Rainy Day

Even if your pet is not suggesting that now would be a good time to move to the Adirondacks, there are some precautions that you can take to prepare for the onset of a disaster.

The New York City Office of Emergency Management (O.E.M.) has created a preparedness document, “Ready New York for Pets,” that offers tips on evacuation; what to do if you can’t get home to a pet; a packed bag checklist, and basic first aid tips for small animals.  It can be viewed on the O.E.M. Web site by clicking here.

A somewhat different guide is available at the ASPCA site. Among other tips, it counsels families to designate alternate caregivers.

Both documents emphasize the importance of including all household animals in emergency planning strategies.