San Bernardino, California. In the wave of this week’s destruction, human and animal survival stories are beacons of light against the backdrop of intense tragedy. When Sri Lanka wildlife officials reported that they did not find many animal carcasses speculations arose about a “sixth sense.” But can animals really predict disaster?
According to author and animal disaster behavior expert Diana L. Guerrero, “Anecdotal accounts seem to indicate animals exhibit an awareness of impending disaster. Behavioral changes are common in both wild and domestic animals prior to seismic activity but they are difficult to quantify scientifically.”
Due to the relatively slim animal casualties in comparison to the human death toll it appears that animals in Sri Lanka vacated the area prior to the tsunami. Guerrero said, “The withdrawal of the animals could be attributed to survival instincts. A more common example would be the survival response in groups of animals in response to predators—they avoid the hunters but ignore those that are not on the prowl. I would speculate that the same adaptations relate to geological and related threats.”
Guerrero is the author of the booklet, Animal Disaster Preparedness for Pet Owners & Pet Professionals and is one of the contributing editors to Resources for Crisis Management in Zoos
and Other Animal Care Facilities. In addition to her written works, she holds numerous certifications in the animal disaster field from groups such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The author has also worked with many of the nation's animal disaster rescue groups.
During her research Guerrero found works from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University exploring the possibility that animals anticipate disaster. A more recent paper published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America stated that earthquake precursors might be found outside the realm of seismology and in the studies of animal behavior, sensory physiology, and even genetics.
Guerrero said, “It is not uncommon for animals to exhibit behavioral changes before an impending disaster. The rule of thumb is to note any behavior that is abnormal for your animal. The problem is that most observations are subjective. Sensory perception and reactions among animals vary. The problem faced from the scientific realm is that these trends need to be accurately measured to be taken seriously. Personally I’ve seen changes in normal patterns of behavior in both wild and domestic animals prior to seismic activity, but actually proving that the changes were precursors is difficult.”
Changes usually used to calculate threat involve variations in magnetic, electrical, tilt or humidity standards. Guerrero mentioned a few investigative works by independent scientists and
a few academic institutions like the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University. Even other countries consider animal predictions worthwhile.
“Earlier this year the Washington Times reported that the Chinese will resume the monitoring of animal behavior changes in relation to seismic activity. You could call the animals, seismic sentries.”
The animal behaviorist has sourced papers on the topic from Japan but says there are more anecdotal references. “These observations on the topic go back to 373 BC and come from Italy, Greece, Chile and many other countries. More contemporary observations include a California geologist who began collecting reports of unusual animal behavior, and increased numbers of lost pets in shelters. He is attempting to correlate behavior changes to seismic activity and has been doing this for years--so this isn’t a new topic but it is timely.”
But could animal behavior be used to alert us to natural disasters? Guerrero said, “Yes, I believe they can be used as indicators, as they have been in the past. However the technique for identifying precursory behavior would have to be refined and standardized to be taken seriously.”
Guerrero’s animal disaster preparedness booklet, now in the fourth edition, offers her notes on pre and post animal behavior and tips to mitigate the affects of a disaster. In addition, readers will find guidelines about how to prepare prior to a disaster, how to form or get involved in a animal disaster preparedness network, and what items to include in kits for dogs, cats, horses, and birds. The work also includes tip sheets for behavior, identification, health, diet, and sanitation for multiple species during a disaster. First published in 1992, the newer edition includes bonus sections on post disaster animal behavior and resources for the pet owner including animal disaster agencies, where to get training, and suppliers of kits and equipment (focusing on the United States). For more information visit www.arkanimals.com.