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New Orleans pet evacuation crisis brings hope of rescue mandate

Just in from New Orleans, at the Lamar-Dixon rescue center (Dana Forbes)


WASHINGTON D.C., NEW ORLEANS––U.S. Representatives Chris-topher Shays (R-Connecticut) and Tom Lantos (D-California), co-chairing the Congressional Friends of Animals caucus, on September 22, 2005 introduced legislation that would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to withhold grant funding from communities that fail to develop pet evacuation and transport standards.

U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut) indicated that there will also be Senate attention to animal rescue in disasters.

“It is heartbreaking to hear of families forced to leave pets behind as they followed instructions to evacuate or were being rescued,” Lieberman said. “As the ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, I have joined the chair, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), in calling for an investigation of this immense failure in the government’s response to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy.”

Senator John Ensign (R-Nevada) said he had lobbied the White House to “name someone to take charge of dealing with animals left behind by people fleeing the storms, as well as countless strays,” wrote Benjamin Grove of the Las Vegas Sun.

The Federal Emergency Manage-ment Authority and the U.S. Coast Guard reportedly told commanders of crews helping with the New Orleans evacuation that they could either rescue animals or pass them by.

Animals were often allowed aboard National Guard aircraft, including six dogs who arrived on September 8 at Otis Air National Guard Base near Bourne, Massachusetts.

“People tend to look at this and say, ‘Why are they getting dogs [while] all these people need help?’” Massachusetts Depart-ment of Agricultural Resources director of bio-security and regulatory services Brad Mitchell told Adrienne P. Samuels and Megan Tench of the Boston Globe. “A lot of these people have lost everything. People who have pets know they’re a lot of comfort.”

Many evacuees tried to take animals.

“Pets were as much a part of the exodus from Louisiana as people,” observed Salatheia Bryant of the Houston Chronicle, “with owners walking dogs along freeway medians leading out of New Orleans, and crates as common as child safety seats in cars.”

After Hurricane Rita compounded the disaster by devastating Port Arthur, reported Associated Press, “Boats piloted by deputies, rescue workers, and private citizens roared up and down the wide Industrial Canal, ferrying families, dogs, cats, and a woman with a huge bird cage. On the 38-foot shrimp boat Blood, Sweat & Tears, nine people, six dogs, two rabbits and a cat rode out the flood.

“Many evacuees told stories of deer stuck on levees and cows swimming through seawater miles from the Gulf of Mexico.”


Among the most-reported animal stories in the first days after Katrina was the short, sad saga of Snowball, witnessed by Associated Press reporter Mary Foster.

“This happened where the crowd was jammed into each other in an effort to reach the buses,” during the evacuation of the temporary human shelter at the New Orleans Superdome, Foster told ANIMAL PEOPLE.

“It was one of the many horrible things that went on as desperate people tried to get out and authorities tried to maintain some sort of order,” Foster continued.

“A policeman took the dog. The little boy, who was already crying, started screaming the name ‘Snowball,’ and then threw up. A man picked the boy up and they went on to the bus. I asked the policeman about the dog. He said they were not allowing anyone to take pets on the buses. He then led the dog, a medium-sized mutt, away. I was the only reporter there. I had stayed in the Superdome since the Sunday before the storm, covering the story.

“I saw many people leave pets behind,” Foster continued. “Every incident was terrible. I also saw people forced to separate from family. I was told some animals died. Many were taken by the National Guard and police. Others escaped. I looked when the SPCA picked up the animals and could not find Snowball. I did see cats, dogs, even birds who were left behind.”

Some rescuers accused Foster of not cooperating with their efforts to find Snowball and reunite the dog with the boy, who was never identified.

“I’m in a crushed city,” Foster said. “I’m trying to cover the stories here. My cell phone works intermittently. My job is what I focus on. At some point I hope to do a story on the SPCA and the heroic work they are doing, but so far, I haven’t had time.”

Foster later contacted ANIMAL PEOPLE for information in connection with covering the shooting of dogs who were left behind by evacuees in St. Bernard Parish.

The Superdome evacuation produced many similar stories.

“Julie Anne Pieri, 29, an artist, sobbed as she described how she had been forced to abandon the cat she fled her home with and spent four days looking after in the heat and filth of the shelter,” wrote London Telegraph correspondent Catherine Elsworth.

HSUS vice president for field and disaster services Melissa Rubin said 43 dogs and 16 cats were rescued from the Superdome after the human evacuation.

Refused to go

Elsewhere in New Orleans, countless people refused to leave without their animals, no matter what. “Diana Womble, who was picked up by boat six days after the flood waters surrounded her house, would not leave unless she brought her 15 cats. Her cats were eventually boxed up and loaded into the boat,” wrote Elsworth of the Telegraph.

Salt Lake Tribune writer Pamela Manson told the stories of longshoreman Donnie Panarello, 45, of Chalmette, Patricia Arbo, 84, of New Orleans, and Charlie Rinkus, 49, of St. Bernard Parish, who held out with their pets until all could be evacuated together by volunteers from Bluffdale Animal Control, Salt Lake County Animal Services, the Wasatch Humane Society, and the Jordan River Animal Hospital.

Best Friends rescuers at work in NO

Some such stories ended in tragedy.

“Gary Lee Mullins, 55, a lorry driver who was rescued after five days clinging to a tree, said he had to kill his beloved 16-year-old Dachshund-Chihuahua,” Elsworth wrote. “He had saved her from the water, but was not allowed to take her with him. He said: ‘I could not leave her alive in the tree. She was too old to survive.’”

“Patricia Penny begged her son, Billy, 34, to leave,” reported Scott Gold of the Los Angeles Times. “But he was afraid to abandon his five cats and the dog he was watching for friends, so he and his girlfriend stayed at their home. Penny last heard his voice in an 8 a.m. phone call. He was blunt: ‘It’s bad.’ An enormous magnolia tree had fallen over in the front yard, and the storm had ripped a deck off the house. The water was rising and it was too late to leave.” But there were some happy endings.

“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 of water,” wrote Maryann Mott of National Geographic News. “In one hand Harris held a two-way radio. In the other he held his beloved cat, Miss Kitty. For hours Harris called for help. But when rescue workers finally arrived, the 59-year-old man was forced to leave his cat behind. Harris is one of the lucky ones: A team from Noah’s Wish found his cat.

“Harris, who suffers from chronic kidney failure, was admitted to a hospital for surgery after being rescued. Noah’s Wish was able to arrange a reunion at the hospital, 70 miles from Slidell.”

There were some animal heroes.

Graphic designer Erin Marcus, 28, of Athens, Ohio, described to Athens News senior writer Jim Phillips how she met Brill, a German shepherd mix, while volunteering at the Lamar-Dixon rescue center. Brill arrived at Lamar-Dixon with a woman who was trapped with the dog, then unknown to her, for days on the upper story of a building. His barking at last attracted rescuers. Calling the dog “Brilliant,” the woman placed him in Marcus’ care with the plea that he be given a home. Marcus said she would adopt him if he went unclaimed.

Mostly, animals comforted distressed people.

“I have been at the Red Cross center here in Knoxville for two days,” Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley executive director Vicky Crosetti e-mailed on September 5. “This is where all refugees must sign up for government help. Even though I have tons of boarding kennel space, available for an extended period, and plenty of foster homes, the people who got out with their animals are not ready to be separated from them right now.

“This will not be practical for long, “ Crosetti said, “as they search for jobs, homes, etc., but I have seen no need to point that out. Their reality is harsh enough.

“For right now, I’m just handing out business cards and telling people to call if they need us,” along with providing pet supplies, Crosetti told ANIMAL PEOPLE.

University of Tennessee veterinary school personnel offered vet care as needed.

Housing shortage

Merely getting out of New Orleans and other flooded areas with a pet was just the start of the ordeal for many pet keepers. Thousands had only Red Cross shelters to turn to in their first nights after evacuation, but 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 bites, fleas, other insects, and hygiene issues to an already stressful environment.” Shapiro said local Red Cross chapters have the authority to accept pets if they choose to do so.

New Orleans Times-Picayune staff writer Millie Ball drew attention to the scarcity of pet-friendly accommodations for evacuees on September 5.

“A young woman, her 7-year-old daughter, and their pet poodle slept under the altar at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center on the Nicholls State University campus,” Ball wrote. “The Reverend Jim Morris, 44, said he gazed down at the family that had been banned because of the dog from the regular shelter for victims of Hurricane Katrina. He told a colleague, ‘Our altar has never been adorned more beautifully than it is with these people seeking the sanctuary of God.’”

Explained Morris to Ball, “I went over to the school shelter Tuesday night and saw all these people outside, looking dejected and clinging to their animals. They wouldn’t let them inside. So I said, bring them on over to the church.”

The first night, Morris said, “there were 130 people with all these Rottweilers, poodles, Chihuahuas, cats, birds, even a pot-bellied pig. It was unbelievable. We had no kennels or cages––PetSmart and Petco donated them later––and people slept on the terrazzo floor and on the pews. We had no electricity. It was like Noah’s Ark.”

Fifty-three people and their pets remained a second day.

Jim Perkins of Prince Frederick, Maryland on September 18 told readers of the Washington Post that he thought the nation could do better. “I commanded the U.S. joint task force that evacuated 21,000 Navy and Air Force family members from the Philippines to Guam after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991,” Perkins wrote. “Most arrived with only the clothes on their backs and their most prized possessions—including Fido, Snow-ball, Ralph, et al. With meager resources–– one Army vet and a handful of Seabees––we built a 250-space kennel overnight and securely housed every pet brought to us.”

“Ignoring people’s feelings for their animals actually impedes evacuation efforts,” added Carol A. Tavani, M.D., of the Phys-icians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

"We say bring your identification, bring your medication, and bring your pets," Minnesota Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management director Al Battaglia told Rob Hotakainen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“Our evacuation plans say do not leave your pets behind,” New Jersey state veterinarian Nancy Halpern told Jeff Shields of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Local evac plans

“New York emergency officials are changing their rules so people can bring their pets to shelters in a disaster,” Adam Lisberg and Cassandra Uretz of the New York Daily News reported on October 4.

"We've always had a strong position that only service animals would be allowed in shelters," New York City Office of Emerg-ency Management chief Joseph Bruno said. "We're going to have to change our approach."

Similar policy changes are underway around the nation.

“Heart-wrenching images of elderly residents who refused to evacuate New Orleans because they couldn’t take their pets have given new impetus to Palm Beach County’s search for a pet-friendly hurricane shelter,” reported Palm Beach Post staff writer Deana Poole.

“Dianne Sauve, director of the county’s animal care and control division, said during last year’s storms [four hurricanes in six weeks] that shelter staff were deluged with phone calls from desperate residents. At capacity, people were told that if they left their animals, the pets would be euthanized. But many had no other choice. In the end, about 100 dogs and cats were put down.”

“Facing Hurricane Frances last year with no pet-friendly shelter,” wrote Kate Santich of the Orlando Sentinel, “Seminole County hurriedly put together accommodations at Lyman High School. The Red Cross set up its facility for humans in the cafeteria, while Mary Beth Lake set up a facility for pets in a hall. The pet keepers were responsible for feeding and cleaning up after their animals. “

“When we left,” said Lake, “our side was 100% cleaner than the people side.”

Palm Harbor, Florida, in late August and mid-September designated two sites to serve as pet-friendly shelters for human evacuees in future disasters.

Other cities are expected to designate pet-friendly shelters soon.

“In the Mid-Atlantic region,” Jeff Shields of the Philadelphia Inquirer learned, “pet evacuation is a disaster relief priority for which designated County Animal Response Teams plan and prepare.

“Hurricane Floyd in 1999 inspired North Carolina to create the first State Animal Response Team,” Shields wrote. “That storm killed 2.3 million chickens, 30,000 hogs and 800 cattle.”

“During Hurricane Ophelia this month,” Shields continued, “three coastal counties set up shelters to house pets before the storm hit. North Carolina also has plans to provide emergency feeding and ventilation for large farms. Meat-processing plants are even on call to speed up slaughter, rather than have livestock lost to a storm and have rotting carcasses become a health hazard.”

In the Philadelphia area, “Bucks, Chester and Montgomery Counties are now forming County Animal Response Teams,” Shields reported. “Camden, Gloucester and Burlington counties are developing plans. Philadelphia’s team, which is still organizing a plan, will also have to account for carriage horses, laboratory animals and the thousands of animals at the Philadelphia Zoo.”

Experienced animal disaster relief advisors may include Bradford County Animal Response Team coordinator Joe Buttito and New Jersey veterinarian Jeffrey Hamer, who assisted in the New Orleans evacuation.

––Merritt Clifton