Katrina's Pet Legacy: Better Evacuation Plans, Bitter Custody Lawsuits

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
August 21, 2006
After Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast last August, Gary
Karcher and his three dogs sought refuge from the rising floodwaters on
the second floor of his New Orleans home.

It wasn't long before police offered a boat ride to safety for Karcher—but not his dogs: Himie, a Rottweiler, and Precious and Pudgy, both dachshunds.

He refused to leave his pets behind.

(See "Photo Gallery: Pets, Hurricane Katrina's Other Victims.")

After a week Karcher, who is diabetic, couldn't stay any longer. He had run out of insulin.

When the water subsided, he made preparations to leave.

He left plenty of food and water for the dogs. And he scribbled a note, put it in a small watertight bottle, and attached it to Himie's collar.

Then he quietly walked out the back door.

"It's like leaving your kids," the note said.

Now animal owners like Karcher won't have to choose between leaving their pets or risking their lives by remaining in storm-ravaged areas.

(See National Geographic magazine's "Special Edition: Katrina.")

Government officials, emergency workers, and animal welfare groups are putting disaster plans into place to help both people and pets.

Earlier this month the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act was passed by the U.S. Senate.

The legislation requires local governments to include household pets in their evacuation plans. It also allots federal funds for pet-friendly emergency shelters.

"This isn't just about pet safety," said Senator Frank Lautenberg, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill.

"It will also save human lives."

The PETS Act now goes back to the House of Representatives for final passage or to a conference committee, which will reconcile differences between the two versions of the bill.

Pet-Friendly Plans

Terri Crisp is the founder of Noah's Wish, a nonprofit based in El Dorado Hills, California, dedicated to helping pets during natural disasters and armed conflicts.

She says Hurricane Katrina was her 70th disaster. In the storm's aftermath, the organization's trained volunteers rescued and sheltered 1,900 animals in Slidell, Louisiana.

Crisp says she's not surprised that so many storm victims refused to evacuate because of their pets.

A recent survey conducted by the humanitarian nonprofit Fritz Institute found that 44 percent of the storm's victims who chose not to leave did so because they weren't willing to abandon their pets.

Crisp says has seen people in desperate situations make that decision countless times.

"Each disaster just seems to educate more individuals with animals, plus emergency managers, on the fact that animals just can't be overlooked," she said.

Around the country, she and other experts say, officials are taking note.

Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Vermont recently passed laws pertaining to animal care in disaster planning and response.

Meanwhile cities and counties throughout the southeastern U.S. are establishing pet-friendly emergency shelters at a record pace, says Laura Bevan of the Humane Society of the United States.

Alabama and Mississippi are each building "megashelters" in key locations—instead of dozens of smaller ones throughout the state—to house both people and pets.

"Running a pet-friendly shelter is easier logistically compared to evacuating unknown thousands of people and their pets of all various sizes and temperaments," Bevan said.

Even the Red Cross, which has never allowed animals in its shelters due to health and sanitation concerns, is changing it policies.

The organization is now working with animal welfare agencies to operate facilities that would have separate rooms or buildings to house pets.

Katrina Pet Lawsuits

Of the 15,000 animals rescued after Katrina, only 10 to 15 percent have been reunited with their owners, says Michael Mountain of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah.

Best Friends saved and cared for more than 4,000 animals in Tylertown, Mississippi, after Katrina struck.

"An awful lot of people were not in any position to take their pets back," Mountain explained.

Ultimately those animals were shipped to hundreds of shelters throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Many facilities held the animals until December, hoping to hear from owners before putting them up for adoption.

Even then, shelters stipulated that the pets be given back if the original owners were found.

In some cases that hasn't happened. Several lawsuits have been filed nationwide by owners seeking to reclaim their pets from people who adopted them.

Karcher—the New Orleans man forced to leave his dogs in search of medical attention—is one of the lucky ones.

His three dogs were found by rescuers from Best Friends after surviving for weeks on their own.

The note attached to Himie's collar contained the last four digits of Karcher's social security number, helping rescue workers locate him.

Karcher was relieved when he heard the news, especially that Himie was safe.

"He's not my dog," Karcher said. "He's my buddy."

After spending more than eight months refurbishing his flood-damaged house, Karcher was finally able to retrieve his dogs from Best Friends several weeks ago.

"It's a miracle I wound up with all of them back," he said.

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