Don’t forget pets during disasters

Nancy Hicks of New Orleans is reunited with her dog Precious at the Erie County SPCA in New York in October 2005 after being separated during Hurricane Katrina.
Nancy Hicks of New Orleans is reunited with her dog Precious at the Erie County SPCA in New York in October 2005 after being separated during Hurricane Katrina. Associated Press file

Katrina – 10 years ago this week that name became forever linked with tragic scenes of devastated residents, flooded homes and businesses, harried evacuations, and heroic rescues throughout the Gulf states.

Amid enormous disaster response efforts mounted by communities and government agencies, a simultaneous animal rescue operation was undertaken by emergency responders and animal welfare groups from Louisiana and across the country. They mobilized quickly to save and care for thousands of pets imperiled by the hurricane.

Yet, Katrina’s devastation exposed many flaws in the response to animals during natural disasters. Animal welfare groups including the ASPCA dedicated themselves to improving policies and processes to save more lives. We’ve come a long way in the past 10 years, but there’s still much work to be done.

Some of that work is happening in California – no stranger to natural disasters – where the ASPCA and the American Red Cross are working to pass Assembly Bill 317. Current state law only allows veterinary care of animals at facilities with a premise permit; obtaining a permit during a crisis can create life-threatening delays. AB 317 exempts emergency shelters from the permit requirement during disasters, though it requires shelters to conform to all standards of care expected of permanent veterinary facilities.

Our experience during Katrina confirms the importance of these temporary animal shelters. According to one poll, 44 percent of New Orleans residents delayed or chose not to evacuate the city because they refused to leave their pets behind. A similar nationwide poll on behalf of the ASPCA found 42 percent of Americans stating they would also not evacuate without their pets. With pets, owners, and emergency responders all at such great risk, accessible emergency shelters are critical to saving lives.

While rescuing animals in the initial disaster response is critical, reuniting animals with their owners afterward is equally important. In the aftermath of Katrina, roughly 15 percent to 20 percent of animals were reunited with their owners.

Establishing emergency animal shelters near Red Cross shelters is a key component to improving that number. Both the Red Cross and ASPCA try to co-locate shelters whenever possible. AB 317 would smooth this process by making the establishment of fully qualified emergency shelters easier and faster. This is why the Red Cross joins the ASPCA in enthusiastically supporting the legislation, and urging the Senate to approve it.

Thanks to the lessons of Katrina, animals are better protected during natural disasters now than they’ve ever been, but California can play an important role in enhancing those protections.

Kevin O’Neill is senior director of government relations for the ASPCA/Western region. Christy Woods is director of state government relations and external affairs for the American Red Cross.