Katrina Pet Rescue Efforts Offer Lessons for the Future

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
September 21, 2005
For three days after Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast, Bill
Harris was trapped in his Slidell, Louisiana, home standing on a chair
in five feet (two meters) of water.

In one hand Harris held a two-way radio. In the other he held his beloved cat, Miss Kitty.

For hours Harris desperately called for help on his radio. But when rescue workers finally arrived, the 59-year-old man was forced to leave his cat behind.

"He was taken to a Red Cross shelter and was just beside himself with worry about the cat," said Terri Crisp, director of Noah's Wish, an organization that rescues and shelters animals after disasters.

Harris's story is just one of a host of accounts of distraught pet owners forced to abandon animals they consider part of the family.

In the wake of the hurricane thousands of survivors clinging to their pets were told by emergency workers to leave them behind. Some did, but others refused, choosing to stay with their animals despite dangerous conditions.

Yesterday several animal welfare organizations met with the Congressional Friends of Animals Caucus in Washington, D.C., to discuss the animal rescue effort after Katrina.

The groups hope to use lessons learned from the storm's aftermath to improve the way animals are handled during disaster response efforts.

Joint Effort

Michael Markarian, executive vice president of external affairs for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), says his organization plans to work toward a long-term solution, such as legislation that would require agencies to allow people to evacuate with their pets.

He also argues for a better system of pet-friendly shelters for evacuees so they can take animals with them in a time of crisis.

"For people who have lost everything—their homes, their jobs—it is such a comfort to have their pet with them," Markarian said in a telephone interview with National Geographic News.

In the past two weeks animal rescue organizations working in the Gulf Coast region have saved some 5,000 pets.

But many more animals are still trapped inside homes, and others are roaming the streets. Rescue teams are going door to door searching for stranded animals so they can bring them to emergency staging areas and provide them with veterinary care.

Animal groups have been urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other responders to help with the pet rescue effort.

"It will take every available agency to engage in this search-and-rescue effort, as time is running out for the animals left in Katrina's wake," said Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president.

FEMA and the U.S. Coast Guard have reportedly told commanders of crews on the scene that they have the discretion to rescue animals or pass them by.

Also, the Red Cross has a long-standing national policy of not accepting animals in shelters.

"The Red Cross shelters must be designed to accommodate everybody," said spokesman Nick Shapiro. "We can't add the risk of animal bites, fleas, other insects, and hygiene issues to an already stressful environment like a mass care shelter."

He said local Red Cross chapters have the authority to accept pets if deemed necessary.

Michael Mountain, co-founder of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, said one solution for future rescue efforts is for human and animal teams to work hand-in-hand.

An animal rescue team from the sanctuary was allowed on one occasion to accompany the U.S. Army into devastated areas of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, the parish—or county—that includes New Orleans.

"The people got out quicker because we just took the animals and they were assured they'd be in safe keeping," Mountain said. "They were much more willing to go."

"And it was great for the soldiers," he added. "Because there's nothing more demoralizing than to go around telling people to leave Fido behind sitting out on the porch as the boat goes away with the family and everyone's in tears."

Be Prepared

Noah's Wish recommends that families can help prepare for disaster response by having an evacuation plan in place that includes pets.

"If we can use Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to educate some more people about being prepared, then I feel that will be one of the real pluses that comes out of this disaster," Crisp of Noah's Wish said.

Before a disaster strikes, Crisp urges pet owners to think about how they are going to get their animals to safety if evacuated. "If you have lots of animals and just one small car, you may have to depend upon neighbors and other people to help you do the evacuation," she said. "And the sooner you start it, the better."

According to Crisp, it's important to know where you're going to take your pets, not only while you ride out the storm, but for the long term if you can't return to your house.

Don't wait to evacuate, she says. Whenever a storm comes in your direction, take your pets and leave. Even if the hurricane takes another course and avoids where you live, evacuating wouldn't be a waste of time—it would be valuable practice.

Happy Reunion

Meanwhile, rescue workers along the Gulf Coast continue to sift through the wreckage of towns struck by Katrina to find and aid animal survivors.

Noah's Wish teams arrived in Slidell, Louisiana, on August 30, the day after the storm. Parts of the city were submerged under 30 feet (9 meters) of water.

"Slidell got hit bad, and the city itself has seen a slow response from FEMA," said Crisp, who has been sitting in on the city's daily briefings. "They've really had to scream loud to make things start to happen."

So far the organization's 155 trained volunteers have saved 600 of the city's animals. Of those 85 have been reunited with their owners.

Harris, the Slidell resident who had to leave his cat behind after being trapped in his home by floodwaters, is one of the lucky ones: A team from Noah's Wish heard about what happened and located his cat.

Harris, who suffers from chronic kidney failure, had been admitted to a hospital for surgery after being rescued. Noah's Wish was able to arrange a reunion at the hospital, which sits some 70 miles (113 kilometers) away from Slidell.

"When our rescue person walked in the door [of Harris's hospital room] with the cat in her arms, the cat jumped out of her arms, up on the bed, and just settled herself down into his arms," Crisp said.

"We are helping the people, like Mr. Harris and his cat, Miss Kitty," she continued. "There's nothing that anyone could have done for him that would have helped him more than being reunited with his cat."

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