Many residents along the Gulf Coast ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 refused to evacuate without their pet. Emergency response plans at the time didn’t account for companion animals, so people were forced to choose between saving themselves or remaining behind with a pet and hoping for the best.
Approximately 600,000 pets were either killed or abandoned as a result of the hurricane or its aftereffects. While it’s impossible to say with certainty that a portion of the roughly 1,800 human fatalities were pet owners who wouldn’t leave their pets behind, anecdotal reports indicate that in some cases, that is, in fact, what occurred.
Dr. Brigid Elchos, deputy state veterinarian for Mississippi, recalled an emergency manager for one of the state’s coastal counties estimating around 25 percent of the deaths in that area were residents who stayed behind with a pet. “The animal welfare crisis Hurricane Katrina created was unprecedented in scale and scope, and it received tremendous media coverage,” Dr. Elchos observed.
The nation was transfixed by images of abandoned cats and dogs left to fend for themselves in the flooded houses and streets of New Orleans, and of evacuees having to leave their pets behind. Tom Lantos, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time of Katrina, was moved by such a photo, one showing a boy being separated from his pet dog.
“The scene from New Orleans of a 9-year-old little boy crying because he was not allowed to take his little white dog Snowball was too much to bear,” Lantos said. “As I watched the images of the heartbreaking choices the Gulf residents had to make, I was moved to find a way to prevent this from ever happening again.”
For this reason, Lantos and his colleague Christopher Shays introduced the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act on Sept. 22, 2005. Signed into law by President George Bush just over a year later, the PETS Act mandates that state and municipality evacuation plans account for pets and service animals if the entity is to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The PETS Act is operational during emergencies in which state and local resources are so overwhelmed that the president makes a federal disaster declaration. That trigger allows for reimbursement for such services as animal sheltering and transport, and emergency veterinary services.
Dr. Elchos, who’s responsible for helping implement the PETS Act in Mississippi, says the law came into play when her state housed pets during Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and again three years later when the Mississippi River flooded. Increasing numbers of municipal emergency management agencies throughout the state are incorporating pets and service animals into their plans, she added.
“The law is both a carrot and a stick. If your plan accommodates pets and service animals, then you’re eligible for reimbursement,” Dr. Elchos said. “So many times, we get unfunded mandates, but this law is actually very beneficial for local communities, the state, and the nation.”
For the AVMA’s FAQ about the PETS Act, click here.