Katrina Stories

No-Animals Evacuation: Cruel For Everyone

by Carol A. Tavani, 9/15/05

For victims of Hurricane Katrina, it was the final blow. Their homes had already been mangled by wind and water in the worst natural disaster in American history. Some lost friends or family. But then discovered rescue would carry one more painful price.

Survivors could get a seat on a boat or bus – only if they obeyed orders to leave their dogs or cats behind to face death from starvation or dehydration. One 98-year-old woman was forced to abandon her dog, her only companion. Before one young boy could board a bus to Houston, police pulled his dog from his arms.

This "no pets" policy inflicted horrific cruelty on animals, as media footage of starving animals engulfed by floodwaters vividly demonstrated. But as a neuropsychiatrist, I offer two more reasons for authorities to practice compassion when disaster strikes.
Psychological Damage
First, consider the psychological damage inflicted on human survivors. In my work, I regularly witness powerful emotional bonds people form with their animal companions. Forcing disaster victims to abandon animals they regard as family members is likely to inflict profound and persistent emotional trauma. That's especially true for the elderly.

Second, ignoring people's feelings for their animals actually impedes evacuation efforts. Dogs and cats and parakeets are completely different from cars, television sets, or other inanimate possessions that most people will walk away from with no more than a second thought.

In countless news stories, survivors hunkered down in ruined or flooded homes said they were refusing to leave for one reason: They did not want to abandon their animals. CNN carried the story of an elderly blind woman in New Orleans who politely but firmly declined to evacuate until authorities allowed her to take her service dog.

That attitude is both compassionate and consistent with Louisiana law, which correctly regards abandoning animals as an illegal act of cruelty. And it is also in accord with the federal government's own guidelines on animal handling in a disaster, which were crafted years ago in cooperation with animal organizations but apparently abandoned in the wake of Katrina.

The situation has improved since the first few days. Some later evacuees were permitted to take their pets with them. And authorities have slowly begun to allow animal rescue groups into New Orleans to rescue abandoned dogs and cats, though many animals have already perished. But such common-sense steps should have been the policy from the start.

As the floodwaters recede, we are beginning to get an idea of the terrible human toll and the steep financial damage exacted by Hurricane Katrina. But another key part of coming to terms with this tragedy is figuring out ways to improve our response the next time disaster strikes.

No economist or insurance adjuster can hang a price tag on the emotional trauma caused by the no-pets policy. But we know it caused real damage, and we know it didn't have to happen. Next time, authorities must ensure it doesn't.

Carol A. Tavani, M.D., is a neuropsychiatrist and a member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. She wrote this for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

Yes, Bring The Animals
9/18/05 The Washington Post, Jim Perkins  ~  The emotions that pets generate among young and old alike fleeing any disaster are not a new lesson.

I commanded the U.S. joint task force that evacuated 21,000 Navy and Air force families – and their pets – from the Philippines to Guam after the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption.

Many of these families verged on hysteria and all were traumatized, sure they would never see their pets again and fearful of what would happen next. Most arrived with only the clothes on their backs – and Fido, Snowball, Ralph, et al.

With meager resources (one Army veterinarian and a handful of Seabee carpenters) we built a 250-space kennel overnight and securely housed every pet brought to us. Scheduled visiting and exercise followed. It was another example of the can-do spirit of the wonderful men and women of our armed forces.

A plan to evacuate the victims of a natural disaster, if it doesn't include their pets, is a lousy plan.
a puppy hopes for a kind hand, a yellow home with grafitti about animals seen, fed, rescued 239by850 Brenda Shoss, Kinship Circle, at ARNO with rescued pup found cold and underweight 239x364