Katrina's other victims - October 15, 2005

Animals' plight prompts outcry for change
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By R. Scott Nolen

Images of the animals left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are heart-wrenching. A dog takes refuge on the roof of a car barely visible above the floodwater. A cat wanders a deserted street in the French Quarter. The body of a dog, partially hidden beneath a white sheet, lies on a step outside a New Orleans home.

As much as Hurricane Katrina was a disaster for people living in the Gulf Coast region—one of the worst in U.S. history—it was a catastrophe for animals. Thousands of pets had to fend for themselves when their owners fled to higher ground.

The Humane Society of the United States, one of the lead groups the American Red Cross has designated as responsible for rescue, feeding, and sheltering animals during a disaster, estimates that as many as 50,000 pets and other animals may have been left behind.

This isn't a new phenomenon; pets are abandoned during every major fire, flood, or storm that threatens human life. Pet owners' lack of planning is part of the problem. Rules are another. Federal disaster relief organizations prevent animals from rescue vehicles. The Red Cross bars all animals, save service animals, from shelters for reasons of public health and safety.

Yet the scale of the devastation wrought by Katrina and the floodwaters on New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities was such that scenes of emaciated, injured, or dead animals immediately seized a nation where pets are often considered family members.

There were also accounts of people who would not evacuate without their pets, and the likelihood that some of them died as a result. According to one CNN report, a blind and elderly woman refused to vacate her flooded New Orleans home until rescuers agreed to bring her dog. "My dog goes where I go," she insisted.

With more than 60 percent of U.S. households owning at least one pet, the plight of animals left in Katrina's wake has brought intense scrutiny to evacuation plans that don't account for the human-animal bond.

"What we're seeing is some people aren't leaving if they can't take their pets with them," said Andrew Rowan, PhD, HSUS executive vice president for operations. "This is something that needs to be addressed not just by private organizations like ourself, but also by the government."

Indeed, senators John Ensign and Rick Santorum asked President Bush to designate a federal official to assist animal rescue efforts in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Shortly after the HSUS called for the nation's first animal rescue plan, Rep. Tom Lantos introduced H.R. 3858, which would require local and state emergency preparedness authorities to include pets and service animals in evacuation plans.

"(T)he sight of evacuees choosing between being rescued or remaining with their pets, perhaps even having to leave behind the trained and faithful helping animals that some people with disabilities rely on every day, was just heartbreaking," Lantos said.

Dr. Sebastian E. Heath, a senior staff veterinarian with the Agriculture Department's Emergency Programs, has studied the influence of the human-animal bond on pet owners during disasters. Owners who refuse to evacuate during a disaster, he explained, are a danger to themselves and to those trying to take them to safety. "It's really a public health issue," Dr. Heath said, adding that human welfare must be the emphasis of such contingencies.

"On a national level, we need to get emergency management agencies tied into the concept that helping with pet evacuations is really a good way to get people to evacuate," he said.

The most important reason pet owners won't leave during a disaster is they have too many animals and haven't made appropriate plans for them, he said. While supporting the inclusion of pets in government evacuation plans, Dr. Heath believes a pet's welfare is first and foremost the owner's responsibility.

"If we're going to be stewards of these beings, and if we're going to treat them as members of the family, we have to have contingency plans on how to take care of them," Dr. Heath said. "It really is an owner's responsibility. It's not a search-and-rescue team's responsibility; it's not an evacuation agency's responsibility; it's the owner's responsibility."

Now, it's up to the government to decide if and how it will accommodate pet owners who have planned to leave no family member behind.