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The cat's cradle of responsibility: assigning and taking responsibility for companion animals in natural disasters

By Cheryl Travers, Christopher J. Degeling, Melanie Rock

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Responsibility is often regarded as a unified concept. However in everyday language, the term refers to a cat's cradle of related ideas and perceptions. Although there might be consensus that individuals should be ultimately responsible for their own animals during crises, individuals and groups may disagree about the norms and obligations we ought to adopt and what we owe to animals that are dependent on our care. A coherent account of responsibility for companion animals, or pets, in disasters is yet to be articulated. At the same time, there is good evidence showing that individuals and communities cope better during and after natural disasters when companion animals receive protection alongside their human families. Against this backdrop, the concept of responsibility is increasingly invoked in public communication as a motivation for pet owners to comply with emergency management plans. While top-level emergency managers seem clear on their responsibilities, studies have shown that operational-level emergency responders and service providers are less likely to know who is responsible for pets and in what ways. In this paper, we undertake a structured examination of how different concepts of responsibility are enacted around human-companion animal relationships in the context of natural disasters. Case examples from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission are used to examine issues and challenges in the effective translation of the concept of responsibility into operational practice. We explore how a more structured approach, with sensitivity to both human and non-human vulnerabilities, may help frontline responders, service providers and policy-makers to better engage with owners concerning responsibility for their companion animals during disasters.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2016
Publication Title Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies
Volume 20
Pages 10
Language English
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. natural disasters
  3. open access
  4. Pets and companion animals
  5. responsibilities
  6. taxonomy
  1. open access