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Katrina leading to better pet rescue efforts

About 250,000 pets were left behind when Katrina struck the Gulf.  New laws are aiming to change that.
After Katrina, an estimated 250,000 pets were left behind and drowned or faced starvation, forced to fend for themselves in an abandoned city.
After Katrina, an estimated 250,000 pets were left behind and drowned or faced starvation, forced to fend for themselves in an abandoned city.Ric Francis / AP file

In the months after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last August, there were heartening stories of pet rescues.

Gigi, a tuxedo kitten found in the rubble of a collapsed awning in Jefferson Parish, La., was fostered in Texas and later adopted by a single woman with a teenage daughter.

Bill Harris, who credited his survival of a three-day flood ordeal to the presence of his cat, Miss Kitty, was separated from her after his rescue, but she was later found. The story of their reunion touched many. Sadly, Harris died a couple of months later, but Miss Kitty has a new home in Canada with Donna Wackenbauer, a volunteer with animal rescue organization Noah’s Wish, who helped find Miss Kitty.

Gigi and Miss Kitty were among the lucky ones, about 15,000 of them that were rescued by humane organizations, dog and cat rescue groups, and individual volunteers. But an estimated 250,000 pets were left behind and drowned or faced starvation, forced to fend for themselves in an abandoned city.

That was the fear of so many people who endangered their lives by refusing to evacuate without their pets. If new legislation takes hold, they may not have to in future disasters.

More than property
The hurricane laid bare the dichotomy between people’s attachment to their animals and the unwillingness or inability of shelters, police and other rescue officials to accommodate pet owners.

Besides being a wake-up call to officials that pets are more than property, Katrina was a pet health and welfare disaster. Rescued animals were found to be suffering from heartworm disease, internal and external parasites, dehydration, trauma, wounds from debris and standing water, malnutrition, lethargy and exhaustion, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. And when rescued animals were transported out of the area to shelters around the country, it became more difficult for those shelters to find room for other animals in need.

Because of it, however, Congress is one step closer to protecting the health and well-being of dogs and cats in future disasters.

On Aug. 4, just weeks before the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Senate passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which requires local and state disaster plans to include provisions for household pets and service animals in the event of a major disaster or emergency. A similar bill was approved by the House in May, but the House must either adopt the Senate version — which is more comprehensive — or the two bills must be reconciled before going into effect.

In addition, nearly a dozen states have enacted legislation aimed at protecting people and pets during disasters.

“Some of these state laws are simply one-sentence declarations that pets should be included in emergency preparedness plans, while other laws include specific plans and mandates related to the sheltering, housing and evacuation of people and their pets,” says Sherry L. Rout, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ legislative liaison for the southern region.

One of those laws is Louisiana’s SB 607, which includes requirements that people and their service animals be sheltered together and that evacuees be permitted to bring pets in carriers on public transportation as long as doing so doesn’t endanger human life. Businesses housing animals must develop evacuation plans for those animals. An identification and tracking system will help ensure that people who are separated from their animals can be easily and swiftly reunited with them.

Like the PETS Act, many of the state bills have yet to be implemented or tested. Funding, or lack thereof, could be an issue, although the Senate version of the PETS Act authorizes financial help to states to create emergency shelters for people with animals as well as essential assistance for people with pets and service animals and the animals themselves following a disaster.

Make an evacuation plan now
Katrina made two things clear. One is that local, state and federal emergency planning efforts must include the needs of people with pets or service animals when planning for evacuations, shelters, rescue and recovery, and tracking.

“Local authorities now realize, after many years of hearing it from the AVMA and other organizations preparing for animals in disasters, that people will risk their lives for their animals,” says Cindy Lovern, a veterinarian and assistant director of scientific activities for the AVMA. “In future disasters, national, state and local authorities have to consider animals when considering the evacuation of people. The two are tied together intimately.”

The other point made clear by Katrina is that people must have a plan for evacuating with their pets. Leaving them behind should not be an option.

“It is vitally important to have a plan in place that includes your whole family,” Lovern says. “It is not wise to rely on local authorities to rescue you and your pets. It is ideal to evacuate early, know where you are going and how to get your animals out with you, and have the resources already assembled to leave your home quickly so you don’t become a victim yourself.”

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

Creature Comforts appears the third Monday of every month.