Rescuing animals in disasters

Profiles of Norwegian Science


Photo: Ilan Kelman
A captive reindeers appears sadly out of place in Tromsø.

Agder, Norway

Animals and habitats are frequently neglected in dealing with disasters. An online conference ran from Feb. 15 to Feb. 24 to bring together people with interests in this topic. The Global Animal Disaster Management Conference had over 50 speakers, but I was the only presenter listed with a Norwegian affiliation.

This, despite the high relevance of animals in disasters across the full length of Norway. I presented a framework covering five main and overlapping animal categories to be considered in avoiding, preparing for, and responding to disasters.

First, companion animals, in effect, meaning pets. A pet dog was rescued from each of last year’s landslides in Alta in June and in Ask in December.

People also keep cats, birds, fish, lizards, spiders, turtles, and snakes as pets, among many others. All must be considered by rescuers entering damaged buildings and when preparing disaster shelters.

Too often, people are denied entry into communal shelters or they feel forced to manage on their own because their non-human family member cannot be admitted or taken care of.

Owners might also put themselves and others in danger by trying to return home to recover their animal left behind. If their pet is killed in the disaster, the owner’s recovery tends to be impeded.

The second category is service animals. Many people with disabilities rely on animals and must have the animals with them at all times. Disaster-related activities should account for this human-animal relationship.

black dog

Photo: chelovekpoddojdem / pxHere
Norway’s national dog is the Norwegian Elkhound, used for hunting, tracking, and guarding.

Emotional support animals are becoming increasingly used, leading to difficulties in identifying and providing support, as well as discussions over legal stances. Airline companies have had particular challenges. In 2018, an airline company was fined for inadvertently but illegally bringing a dog into the United Kingdom on a flight from Bergen.

Service animals undertake a wide range of tasks. In Norway, these include detecting drugs and explosives as well as other work with police and military personnel. Norway’s national dog is the Norwegian Elkhound, used for hunting, tracking, and guarding. All these animals need to be considered in disasters.

Service animals overlap with the third category of livelihood animals. Fish farms dot Norwegian coasts. Norwegian farms include plenty of variety horses, beef and dairy cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and birds—any of which could be endangered by floods, slides, tsunamis, or other hazards. In 2017, in Østfold, 6,500 turkeys died when their building burned.

Reindeer herding is a livelihood in Norway. Reindeer have starved when winter weather stopped them foraging. Wildfires, avalanches, floods, lightning, drought, and wolves can kill them—and kill their herders, perhaps when trying to save their livestock.

The fourth category is captive animals. From the Kristiansand Zoo and Amusement Park to the Oslo Reptile Park to Bardu’s Polar Park, Norway’s animal parks, zoos, and aquaria hold animals from around the world. Add pet stores and research facilities into the mix for major challenges across a variety of animals experiencing diverse disasters around Norway.

The final category in the framework is wildlife and wildland. Wild reindeer herds, bird cliffs, moose, and whales are examples of wild animals that could be harmed in disasters. Ethical dilemmas emerge when trying to determine how much human intervention should be completed for wild animals being threatened by typical environmental phenomena.

Overlaps occur with livelihoods, such as whale watching, bird watching, hunting, and fishing. Where wild animals are more relevant to human interests, should that mean more human interventions?

Similarly, with biodiversity, geodiversity, and ecodiversity being prominent traits of the environment, how much should they be considered within a framework of animals, habitats, and disaster-related activities? Animism remains an important element of exploring human-nature relationships and their meanings in disasters. The conference provided an opportunity to lay out these research and practice questions to develop an agenda for continuing work.

With thanks to the conference’s organizer, Animal Evac New Zealand, Steve Glassey as the driving force, and the entire team for giving prominence to a long-standing but often misunderstood topic. Keeping animals safe keeps us safe, but we lack so much research and experience to know exactly what to do.

The Global Animal Disaster Management Conference is at, and videos will be posted later this year.

This article originally appeared in the March 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.