Lady Frances, a cheerful canine companion of undetermined origin and age, is Raquel Aluisy's poster pup for the importance of hurricane preparedness.
"No microchip, no identification. She's a Hurricane Fran rescue from North Carolina a few years back, found wandering after the storm," said Aluisy, her adopted mom. "Just a wonderful dog. I use her as an example why we need to have an emergency plan in place for our pets."
Aluisy is president of the Community of Hillsborough Animal & Agricultural Response Team, a nonprofit group that works to improve disaster plans for animal owners and agricultural interests. It was formed two years ago after Florida got hit by a series of major storms, when it became apparent that most people didn't have a disaster plan in place for their pets.
Saturday, the organization known as CHAART joined forces with Hillsborough County Animal Services to sponsor a volunteer training session for pet sheltering and to offer tips on preparing a pet evacuation kit. It took place at Burnett Middle School in Seffner, one of two campuses in the county that accepts animals in a declared emergency. The other is Sickles High School in Tampa.
With a storm brewing in the Caribbean, organizers said they hoped pet owners would take their advice seriously.
"Pets can get even more stressed than people when the weather goes bad, even aggressive," Aluisy said. "They can sense a change in the barometric pressure."
Public awareness about the importance of making a plan for their animals - and getting government cooperation - is a decade-long passion of Aluisy. Last year was the first time Burnett and Sickles were designated pet-friendly shelters; a quiet storm season meant the schools weren't called upon to take in any furry boarders.
The schools can take up to 200 animals each. Drop-off boarding isn't permitted, and advance reservations are not allowed.
She notes that the county shelters should be considered a last resort. Private residences, hotels or boarding facilities should be looked at first, she said.
Other counties have similar pet shelter programs. They include: in Pinellas, Dunedin Highland Middle School, Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater and Thurgood Marshall Middle School in St. Petersburg; in Polk, Lime Street Elementary School in Lakeland, Lake Region High School in Eagle Lake and Alta Vista Elementary School in Haines City; and in Pasco, Pine View Middle School in Land O' Lakes.
Kathleen Elbare of Tampa, who works with other disaster groups, came out Saturday to get certified as a volunteer for the pet-shelter program. All helpers are insured by the county and must be at least 18 years old.
"Our point of view on our pets has really changed over the years. They're not just animals, they're family members," she said. "That's why you had so many people refusing to evacuate in previous storms. They'd rather put themselves at risk than leave their pets behind."
Based on national statistics of one pet for every two people in the country, CHAART estimates Hillsborough County is home to more than 500,000 dogs and cats.
Horse owners also have to take special precautions during the storm season. Vicki Lawry of the Sunshine State Horse Council said two of the biggest issues are transportation and having a destination. Also, any horses that are moved off property need to have proof of Coggins, which is an annual blood test that screens for a deadly virus.
A best-case scenario for a horse caught in a storm's path is to be let loose in a fenced pasture with a water source. But that means the owner has to make sure the animal is either micro-chipped or has an identification tag - in the mane, around the neck or even on a hoof.
"Plan, plan and plan," Lawry said. "Moving a horse isn't something you can do in the final hours."
KITS FOR PETS
Hurricanes affect the animal members of a household, too. They need their own disaster plan to prevent homelessness, and an evacuation kit to keep them safe during stressful times. The Community of Hillsborough Animal & Agricultural Response Team makes these suggestions:
Have proof of current rabies vaccination for dogs, cats and ferrets.
Securely fasten pet identification on each animal.
Have a sturdy carrier large enough for the animal to stand up and turn around inside.
Prepare a minimum three-day supply per pet that includes food, water, medicine and waste removal.
Have your pet micro-chipped.
For more information on how to be prepared for your pet, go to www.chaart.org.
Horse owners can find more tips at www.ahoof.org.