Shameful policy caused many pets' deaths
The ban against pets in Katrina rescues and shelters hampered the evacuation and killed people and animals

BY KAREN DAWN

Karen Dawn runs the animal advocacy media watch Web site DawnWatch.com and is a contributor to "In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave."

September 14, 2005

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, many of us have seen distressing coverage of animals discarded on rooftops or at stations where people boarded buses for Red Cross shelters. We have read stories of small dogs grabbed by police officers from the arms of old people and sobbing young children.

Some stories are almost unbelievable in a civilized nation. One man survived for five days in a tree with his 16-year-old dachshund-Chihuahua. His rescuers would not let him carry the dog onto a boat. He killed his beloved companion rather than leave her to starve in the tree.

In the midst of such tales we also read the quote from Michael Brown as he left his post as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It began with, "I am going to go home and walk my dog." His policies stole that last sweet comfort from those who had nothing else left.

The refusal to acknowledge the bond people have with their animals hampered the evacuation, since some people refused to leave. It also increased, exponentially, people's loss.

Further, the official animal ban illuminated the class issue: Whereas Marriott hotels welcomed pets as part of the family, Red Cross shelters forced people to abandon that part of the family or to ride out the storm. Many people died as a result. Others remained for weeks in the disease-infested area.

Media stories have focused on the plight of the animals and of people frantic over the fate of their pets. Only a few have been insensitive to the issue. Perhaps most confused was a column in Slate Magazine that contended that although it was sad the dogs were starving, "their owners should have evacuated them - and themselves - before the storm hit, when pets could be accommodated more easily." As if the destitute folks without gas or even cars, who didn't head for the nearest pet-friendly hotel before the storm, had only themselves to blame.

That column actually suggested that the deaths of people who would not part with their pets were tragic, but not as tragic as the "chaos" pets would have caused at shelters. Interestingly, hospitals and nursing homes actually invite dogs in to raise patients' spirits. The presence of dogs, although inconvenient, also could have been a morale booster, whereas their absence has caused the greatest suffering for many people who are frantic about their fate.

If dog bites are a concern, then surely cheap disposable muzzles should be part of FEMA and Red Cross deployment equipment. And, yes, some people are allergic to animals, particularly cats, which is why people traveling with cats might have to be transported separately. It would also be fair to recommend that cats be placed in adjoining shelters - anywhere, as long as their families knew they were safe.

Let's compare our nation's treatment of animals to that of other countries: In France, official policy allows dogs in restaurants. One cannot imagine it would call for their abandonment during disasters. Do the French care more about their animals than we do? The photos of Katrina's aftermath answer that: people on rooftops or wading or swimming through filthy water, having left every one of their worldly possessions, but desperately clutching their beloved pets. But U.S. official policy is out of touch with that reality.

In Cuba last September, more than 1.5 million people were evacuated to higher ground before a storm. About 20,000 houses were destroyed, and nobody died. The people were told to take their animals, and veterinarians were provided. Far from causing chaos, the evacuation of animals prevented it. The Cuban government did not have to deal with people refusing to leave their animals and did not have to force them to leave them.

Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated." How embarrassing it must be for our government to see that in emergencies the United States lags behind Cuba, whose treatment of animals saved the animals' lives and those of the people who care for them. In the wake of Katrina, the shameful no-pet policies of American relief agencies killed some people, mostly poor. It devastated many more, who will rebuild their homes but will never get over the awful choice a great nation should not have forced them to make.