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​What Happens to Stray Animals in a Blizzard?

New York's apocalyptic tempest was a dud, but it doesn't take the end of the world to hurt the animals that call major cities home.

Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

Back in 1888, New York got slammed with an actually historic blizzard. Known as the Great White Hurricane, the mid-March storm buffeted the city with more than two feet of snow and winds approaching 50 miles per hour as temperatures dropped toward zero. The storm knocked out services across the city and killed well over a hundred New Yorkers who tried to step out into it.

And according to some accounts, it left thousands of birds in the city and dozens of cattle in other outlying, harder-hit northeastern towns frozen solid in trees and fields, dead where they stood.

Compared with 1888 (or really, any given winter's day in Chicago), New York's apocalyptic tempest was a dud. But it still managed to kick up some nasty, cold winds in the city. And other towns, like Boston, did suffer the clobbering New Yorkers so panickedly feared.

Yet it doesn't take the end of the world to hurt the animals that call major cities home.

"[Animals] can suffer from things like frostbite just like people can," explains Dr. Kristen Frank, a veterinarian and staff internist at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "They can start getting hypothermia... just like a human. And it doesn't have to get to negative forty degrees for that to happen."

Birds have been known to drop from the skies in lesser blizzards, and cities like Boston and New York have pretty sizable feral and stray populations (mainly kittens). So it's fair to wonder whether, in the blizzard's aftermath, we're going to find some tragic squirrelcicles à la 1888.

Fortunately for animal lovers, it's unlikely that many animals died in Monday night's storm. It's actually unlikely that even the doomsday event we were all expecting would have hurt too many.

"Feral cats," explains Frank, "can often find shelter on their own to stay warm."

It's a natural animal instinct, and just finding a place that blocks the wind and keeps off a bit of the cold can be enough for a furry critter to hunker down and sleep off the worst weather.

Case in point, even with domesticated, outside animals, consider the freak weather it took to down thousands of cattle in South Dakota in 2013: In October, farmers had moved their animals into summer pastures, totally unshielded from the elements, thanks to the rare 80-degree weather they'd experienced that fall. Sensing something strange in the environment, the cows started moving themselves toward shelter, and made it up to 12 miles. But the sudden weather shift came before they could reach a shielded area. As it'd rained just before the snow, many cows sank into the mud, then froze into the ground, and if they didn't freeze first they were slowly crushed or drowned, trapped in ditches, or hit by cars while fleeing across the local roads.

That's the recipe for mass animal deaths in a winter storm: an unseasonable and rapid temperature shift (in 1888, the Northeast was experiencing spring showers days before the blizzard) coupled with a lack of adequate, accessible shelters for animals to flee to.

Unlike in the vast and open plains of South Dakota, there are tons of nooks and crannies in East Coast cities for animals to hide within. And since 1888, we've developed tons upon tons of services for strays. Shelters stayed open throughout the city all night Monday and into Tuesday, and organizations like Animal Control & Care of New York City spent a good amount of time educating people about how to protect feral animals temporarily or report them to 311 for pickup by animal care agents as weather allowed.

Even the most ill-adapted of outdoor zoo animals were covered against tragedy, with animal keepers working through the storms to monitor their charges and man generators as needed, providing heat and making sure that shelters were secure and foodstuffs were accessible.

"It would be more personal pets that I would be concerned would get into [a dire] scenario," says Frank. "They're not used to fending for themselves or surviving in that kind of environment."

Most city dwellers keep their pets indoors at all times, and animal care organizations distributed tons of warnings urging people to move their outdoor pets inside or instructing them in how to set up a secure shelter. But there's always the risk of negligent or waylaid owners leaving their pets exposed to the elements. Those are the animals at risk in any blizzard, although if they die it won't be a collective misfortune witnessed across the city like the birds of 1888 or cows of 2013.

But here's the big irony: One of the greatest modern threats to animals in storms might be our bids to mitigate them than the bad weather itself. Animal welfare organizations warn of the fairly common phenomenon of pets, strays, and wild things alike getting irritated after contact with or licking up and then dying from deicing salts or anti-freeze. So if you do come across any dead animals in the blizzard's wake, it was probably poison, not cold, that killed the beast.

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