As Hurricane Irma bore down on the Florida Keys with 130-miles-per-hour winds Sunday morning, Florida animal control officers were scrambling to rescue dozens of pets that had been abandoned by their owners before the Category 4 hurricane raked up Florida's west coast. Palm Beach County Animal Care reported animal control had found – and rescued – more than 50 dogs and cats abandoned outside ahead of Hurricane Irma. Given the danger of the approaching hurricane, many have characterized the pet owners' abandonment as animal cruelty.
In the last 48 hours, Palm Beach Country Animal Care rescued 48 dogs and two cats left to brave the incoming hurricane outside by neglectful owners. According to local news broadcaster NBC 12, the animals were abandoned outside, trapped in yards and crates or tied to trees and cars, by owners who'd appeared to have evacuated ahead of Hurricane Irma. Given Hurricane Irma's violent winds, heavy rains, and life-threatening storm surge, the animals would have likely had a slim chance of surviving the storm outside.
Palm Beach County Animal Care Director Diane Sauve told local ABC affiliate WFTS, it appeared that the animals had been consciously abandoned outside. "They are left in a yard [or] in a pen they cannot escape from or tethered to trees or poles," Sauve said, emphasizing how at risk pets abandoned outside during storms as potentially deadly as Hurricane Irma stands to be were. "Even a tiny bit of sand can hurt an animal when it's traveling through 100-plus mile per hour winds."
But pet owners who left their animals in harms way may find there are severe consequences to their decision. While Palm Beach County has a law against leaving a dog unattended while it is chained or tethered, Florida officials have said the crime becomes felony animal cruelty when done under such potentially dangerous conditions. "This is a prime example of animal cruelty," Florida State Attorney Dave Aronberg told CNN affiliate WPTV. "We will find you, and we will prosecute you."
Sauve also claimed that local authorities would determine who'd abandoned their pets to the elements. "It's unconscionable," she told WPT of owners who left their pets outside ahead of the hurricane. "We will not stand for it here in Palm Beach County."
According to Sauve, animal control officers will be unable to continue to rescue animals once winds in Palm Beach County maintain a sustained speed of 35 miles per hour. At that point, the county would turn to the public for help. "We are asking the public, if it is safe, [to] consider sheltering any animals you see left outside, local broadcasters reported Sauve said.
Earlier in the weekend, Florida officials ordered more than 6.5 million people to evacuate in what the New York Times has dubbed "one of the largest emergency evacuations in American history." Hurricane Irma restrengthened to a Category 4 storm just before it bore down on the Florida Keys, making landfall Sunday morning at Cudjoe Key. According to the National Hurricane Center, Irma is expected to remain a major hurricane as it moves along Florida's west coast, bringing with it "imminent danger of life-threatening storm surge flooding."
"The threat of catastrophic storm surge flooding is highest along the southwest coast of Florida, where 10 to 15 feet of inundation above ground level is expected," the National Hurricane Center warned Sunday. "This is a life-threatening situation." The National Hurricane Center also warned Irma would bring "life-threatening wind impacts to much of Florida regardless of the exact track of the center."
Irma's impact was already beginning to be felt early Sunday wind and rain pummeled the state and more than 1.3 million customers lost power. Irma is expected to move up Florida's west coast before turning inland over the Florida Panhandle and into Georgia.