Sarah Miller has always loved animals, but it wasn’t until she experienced the devastation of natural disasters that she decided to take action, starting the Animal Emergency Taskforce. The group helps people and their pets be better prepared for emergency situations like the 2013 flood.
Miller’s concern for animals began on her family’s grain farm.
“I used to be that kid sitting outside with her dogs and cats surrounding her, naming all the random animals,” she says.
Learning to take care of animals was part of her daily life and it led to forming strong bonds with them.
“Without animals there is that void in my life,” she says.
“I always felt safe with them and now animals are my anchor. If I didn't have animals I have no idea what I would do for stress management [....] They are your purpose.”
Miller started fostering pets and volunteering at organizations focused on animal rescue and welfare.
It was through volunteering that she became involved in disaster response.
While helping out at Pound Rescue, Miller was called in to assist the local organization, Heaven Can Wait Animal Rescue, with the 2013 floods in High River.
As a member of the evacuation team she busily worked with local authorities to rescue animals that were left behind in homes.
“Literally 14 days of straight go, go, go. I was still working two other jobs at the time,” she says.
But the first responders and pet evacuation teams ran into problems during the evacuations after owners realized they couldn’t get back home to get their pets.
“These people aren't going to leave without their animals,” Miller says.
“People consider them [pets] their children – members of their family.”
But not acknowledging these furry family members, “puts the first responders going in more at risk because they've stayed too long and they've stayed too late. So now the Fireman has to go get out this family, risking his life,” she says.
As part of their families, Miller realized there were pets who were in need as owners were being evacuated from their homes during the Fort McMurray Fires in 2016.
During the fires, she volunteered with the Alberta Spay Neuter Task Force to help rescue and re-unite pets with their households.
But both disasters had unique challenges that left a lasting impact on Miller.
“The horror you see leftover from the floods… and then just for the fire, everything was gone. Like there was structure here one day and then this one was completely burnt and gone,” she says.
“You couldn't shake it. Once you're involved in something like that, the emotions that come with it,” she says.
“Being involved in animal rescue as I am, there's so many high emotions.”
Helping people prepare for disaster
It was because of her involvement in these disasters that she realized she wanted to be doing more.
This led to the foundation of the Animal Emergency Task Force, a charity organization focused on emergency disaster response and education.
As part of that work, Miller realized there would be less difficulties if individual pet owners and municipalities had a better understanding of what steps to take in emergency scenarios.
Her involvement in emergency evacuations led her to develop an Animal Emergency Response Plan, detailing an organized system that municipalities can follow during an emergency to protect pets.
“I wanted to go out and address the municipalities to have a plan because of what I saw in High River specifically [...] It was chaos. Fort McMurray was a little better, but not enough,” she says.
That’s why she wanted “the municipalities and the people to be ready and prepared before these things happen.”
In doing so, she hopes to educate people so they are better equipped to deal with emergency scenarios and prepared before another disaster occurs.
Miller believes the Animal Emergency Task Force will continue to play an important role as natural disasters increase.
“Whatever is causing it, it's coming harder and faster. They're going to be more intense and they are coming more frequently. So whatever that shift is then people have to be prepared,” Miller says.
Miller says that she plans on being very busy during disaster season, March to December, stressing the importance of being prepared for disasters.
“It's just being out there, being available for a response and making sure that municipalities know what to do in advance,” she says.
Miller intends to continue promoting awareness and education, hoping to make a difference in the lives of those around her.
“I've seen it as the dog owner, I've seen it as the victim, I've seen it as the responder. So for me, I just have the full awareness package of how it can affect everyone and that it doesn't have to be like that. So maybe it's preventing other people to feel how I felt.”
- By Emily Marsten