The recent hurricane and 1,000-year flooding disaster in the greater Houston,Texas area of the U.S. provided a dramatic example of the power of love—and sacrifice. During hurricane Katrina, in 2005, U.S. emergency evacuation and rescue policies excluded pets and service animals from inclusion during the evacuation of New Orleans, Louisiana.
Tens of thousands of pet cats, dogs, and other vulnerable animals were left to fend for themselves, often drowning or starving before they could be rescued by their owners, who could not, in many cases, return to abandoned properties for weeks. Heartbreakingly, up to 100,000 animals were left behind during that terrible natural disaster. As many as 70,000 perished.
A significant portion of the people who refused to be evacuated from their homes in anticipation of Katrina’s landfall were pet owners. These dedicated souls declined to budge if they could not bring their animals with them to emergency shelters.
Some died as a result. Others evacuated with their pets, only to discover they would be refused entry to shelters. In one famous incident, news crews documented the moment a small boy was forced to relinquish his little dog before boarding a bus bound for a shelter in an adjacent state. The sight of the child crying so hard he eventually vomited—and many similarly harrowing tales of painful separation—led authorities to reconsider emergency evacuation policies.
Evacuating pets from the scene of a large-scale natural disaster obviously adds to the already massive challenge of getting everyone out quickly and safely. It compounds the problems of finding adequate shelter and supplies for evacuees. But given that pet owners are often willing to risk their lives to save their pets—which are, after all, considered family members by most pet owners—authorities have grudgingly begun to recognize that no-pet policies are simply not feasible.
The Turning Tide In Houston, in August 2017, one central shelter refused to accept pets initially. As a result, news footage showed that dozens of dedicated pet owners opted to stay outside, huddled in the relentless rain with their frightened pets, rather than enjoy the comfort of the shelter. After one day, however, authorities reversed their stance and allowed these brave souls to enter the facility with their beloved pets.
And thus, the legacy of hurricane Katrina has been the salvation of family pets during subsequent large-scale disasters in the United States. Americans have embraced family pets as nothing short of family members. To some pet owners, the notion of leaving a beloved pet behind to die is simply a bridge too far. Thankfully, out of the muck of these disasters a more humane attitude toward the importance of pets has arisen.
Indeed, volunteers from across the nation bee-lined for Houston in the days during and following Harvey’s landfall, kayaks and fishing boats in tow. This Dunkirk-like, citizen-driven mass mobilization resulted in thousands of additional pets—and people—being rescued from flooded homes, rooftops, trees and other places where they’d been stranded by raging flood waters.
It was a watershed moment in American history. The U.S. finally acknowledged that pets are not props, to be discarded the moment they become inconvenient. It was the moment America acknowledged that leaving helpless pets behind in a natural disaster is tantamount to murder. And pet owners simply aren’t willing to make that sacrifice. As Katrina showed us, many people would rather risk death than abandon their pets. Thankfully, they will no longer be forced to make such an impossible, heartrending decision.
Our thoughts, prayers and well wishes are with all those displaced, but also the emergency crews and courageous volunteers who flocked to aid those affected by this disaster. You are a shining example of humanity at its best. Thank you.
Until next time, be safe, be happy and be well.