The forgotten victims of disaster

Story highlights

  • Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on August 29, 2005
  • There was no provision made for evacuating animals along with families, author says

Francis Battista is one of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society. He was co-director of animal care at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and managed the Best Friends rescue shelter in Tylertown, Mississippi, for four months after Hurricane Katrina. The views expressed are the writers' own.

(CNN)Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina made its devastating landfall on the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. The subsequent failure of levees and emergency response systems in and around New Orleans caused a level of human death, displacement and property damage unseen in living memory.

But as well as the enormous human toll, the storm also took the lives of tens of thousands of animals, nonhuman family members who were left behind to fend for themselves because official disaster response had no provision for the evacuation of pets along with their families. Indeed, their dire circumstances became a prime focus of the 24-hour news cycle.
Francis Battista
The news about stranded animals broke with images of evacuees being forced to leave their pets behind as they boarded buses to other cities.
    The story of a young boy who was so distraught at having to leave his dog, Snowball, when he boarded an evacuation bus became emblematic of the disconnect between how regular folks defined their family and how state and federal agencies defined a family.
    Within a week of Katrina aftermath coverage, images of the horror and spectacle at the Superdome and impoverished residents wading through chest-deep toxic water were giving way to images of dogs perched on top of cars and pacing on the roofs of houses that were flooded to the second story while cats swam for their lives.
    Yet there was no provision made for evacuating animals along with their families, and some residents actually refused to leave without their beloved pets. Indeed, one survey conducted after Katrina found that 44% of those who chose to ride out the storm did so because they could not evacuate with their animals.
    The implications of the legal status of pets being disposable property played out before a horrified nation of animal lovers, including some powerful members of Congress.
    Meanwhile, thousands of volunteers descended on the Gulf Coast to join local and national animal agencies, Best Friends Animal Society among them, attempting to round up and rescue the thousands of animals that were left to sink or swim in the flooded streets or were locked inside of sun-baked, flooded homes with a few days worth of food and water. It made grown men cry.
    In 2006, Congress passed the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, which required local jurisdiction to have a pet evacuation plan in place to qualify for FEMA funding in the event of a disaster. The PETS Act has saved countless animal lives in subsequent disasters and reflects the public understanding that pets are indeed a part of the family.
    Of course, it's impossible to know how many animals died as result of Hurricane Katrina. But a modest estimate of 60,000 to 70,000 dead household pets is shocking by any measure. That the lives of so many "family" members could be sacrificed as a function of an official policy is more than a little disturbing even to those who don't dote on their dog or cat.
    And yet we are in the midst of a less visible yet still comparable tragedy today. Every day, about 9,000 dogs and cats die in our nation's animal shelters for no other reason than, like their Katrina counterparts, they were lost or abandoned and wound up in a shelter that employs lethal means of population control. For homeless pets, that's a weekly disaster on the scale Hurricane Katrina, but without the 24-hour news cycle pushing their fate to public attention.
    It doesn't have to be this way. Nonlethal sheltering policies and practices known as the no-kill movement has transformed over 200 communities around the country including Reno, Nevada; Austin, Texas; Kansas City; Jacksonville, Florida; and Fairfax County, Virginia, into safe havens for shelter pets, with New York and Los Angeles close behind.
    So, while the animals of Hurricane Katrina are a vivid, disturbing memory, over 60,000 dogs and cats dying every week is a real-time disaster that warrants the same level of public outrage and public policy attention that drove the passage of the PETS Act.
    Ultimately, we can't look to Congress for a solution to what is happening in our local animal shelters, which fall under the jurisdiction of municipal leaders. And while, there is no corresponding FEMA level carrot and stick to prompt local measures to end shelter killing, a federal level mandate is not needed to drive local action.
    As a 2011 AP-Petside poll showed, almost three-quarters of pet owners agree that shelters should only be allowed to kill animals in their care if they are too dangerously aggressive to be safely adopted to the public or if they are too sick or injured to be treated. Such voices need to be heard by local civic leaders and animal shelter managers.
    Together, we can save them all.