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New law mandates no pet left behind

Planning for pets in disasters is essential, experts advise.

BY NANCY HOGLAND | NEW ORLEANS, La. | June 20, 2007

For Gulf Coast residents, it was an agonizing choice.

Flee from the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina - leaving everything behind including beloved pets which could not be accommodated by public transport and emergency shelters - or risk staying at home to care for their four-legged "family" members.

In future disasters - whether natural or man-made - pet owners will no longer have to face that dilemma.

The loss of an untold number of pets left behind to fend for themselves during Katrina spurred Congress to approve the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act. Signed by President Bush in October 2006, the new law requires emergency preparedness authorities to include in their plans accommodations for household pets and service animals. States that don't comply could be in jeopardy of losing disaster relief funds.

Some cities are taking advantage of special funds made available through the law to build shelters that will house both animals and their owners. Others are using the money to expand existing kennel facilities and purchase crates, leashes and other items that would be needed.

Laura Brown, animal care specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who along with five others from PETA worked on a rescue team that searched for abandoned pets after Katrina, said she was happy to see the law passed.

"We heard that the public transit wouldn't allow pets pre-Katrina," she said. "Because a large majority of New Orleans residents didn't own cars, they had no way of getting their pets out, so they left them behind. As a result, many died.

"Now cities are going to have to look at changing their policies on things like this," Brown said. "I think that anyone who saw what we saw would be happy, too."

Brown said her group rescued some 300 pets from homes in the Lamar-Dixon area near Gonzales, La. Hundreds more were found dead, she said, noting that most had drowned because they were left chained in their yards and couldn't get away from rising waters or were trapped in homes that had been filled with flood waters. Many more died from starvation.

"Animals have the same physical needs that we have," Brown said. "Being abandoned was a double blow to those family pets. They are entrusted to our care and totally dependent on us for every bite of food they take and every drink of water they get. When we leave them behind, they are helpless and confused and totally incapable of taking care of themselves."

She said because rescue groups weren't allowed into the area until a week after the storm, most of the animals they found alive during their initial searches were starving and dehydrated.

"But they weren't in as bad a shape as those we found over the next two weeks," she said. "By the third week, those that were still alive were so messed up psychologically that it was hard to do anything with them. Some dogs would just run in circles, chasing their tails totally oblivious to us."

Brown said that other dogs, who were probably very friendly at one time, almost seemed to eye the rescuers as a food source and were very aggressive.

"But who can blame them," she asked. "They were nothing but a bag of bones and severely dehydrated. To make matters worse, the weather was insanely hot. Fortunately, once we got them to the van, which was air-conditioned, and got some food and water into them, they would fall asleep.

"I never knew how wonderful the sound of snoring dogs could be," she added.

Sharon Granskog, assistant director of media relations for the American Veterinary Medical Foundation (V-MAT), said that despite the massive devastation caused by Katrina, some good did come out of the storm.

"It really opened some eyes and got people thinking, 'Oh my gosh. What would I do with my pet if I had to leave my house suddenly,'" she said. "It doesn't even have to be a hurricane - you can be forced from your home if there's a fire or chemical spill nearby.

"All of a sudden people realized they need to be ready to take care of the entire family," Granskog said, emphasizing the word "entire."

Granskog's organization, V-MAT, is a national response team of approximately 60 veterinarians, technicians, pharmacists and support personnel that responds to natural or man-made disasters to support the local veterinary community in whatever way necessary. The organization can set up a full field hospital as well as provide medical care for pets, search-and-rescue dogs, livestock, wildlife and even zoo animals.

Brown and Granskog agreed that the most important element in any evacuation plan was planning how to include companion animals.

"You should never - no matter what people tell you - you should never leave your animals behind," Brown insisted. "It could be days or even weeks before you can get back to them.

"I know a lot of people who left their animals behind when they evacuated for Katrina planned to come back the next day to take care of them, but that didn't happen - not because people didn't want to get their pets - because they couldn't," she said. "Pet owners have to be prepared for that scenario."

Brown said because many lodging establishments will allow pets in emergency situations, pet owners, especially those who live in hurricane-prone areas, should call around now and not wait until a storm is heading their way to find places that will accommodate the entire family. Then keep the list handy.

Brown also noted that disasters can strike without warning, so pet owners should always be prepared by keeping an animal emergency kit on hand that includes a bag of food, a gallon bottle of water and a collapsible crate for small animals or a leash or harness for larger dogs. Cat owners should also keep a small litter box and an extra bag of litter. A sheet or blanket to cover the carrier can help keep animals calmer, she said.

"That way, if you have to leave in a hurry, you're at least prepared for a few days," Brown said. "Of course, if you know you'll be forced to stay away longer, you should take at least 10 days worth of food and water."

PETA and other organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States, the American Veterinary Medical Foundation and the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (www.petsitters.org), all offer suggestions online or for download on preparing for a disaster with pets. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also offers information and a brochure that can be downloaded at www.ready.gov.


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Related Links:

PETA

American Veterinary Medical Foundation

Humane Society of the United States

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