Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted on Wed, Sep. 28, 2005

How to save people? Save their animals
Katrina lesson: Evacuees won't leave pets.

By Jeff Shields, Inquirer Staff Writer

For decades, disaster evacuation plans had strict priorities for people and pets. Move the humans first, worry about the animals later. Recent storms had eroded that maxim, and Katrina has blown it down.

After New Orleans residents died because they wouldn't abandon their pets, emergency planners from across the country began embracing a new reality: They can best save people by saving animals, too.

"We've always assumed that pets would be left behind," said Thomas Sullivan, Montgomery County's director of public safety. "But it's unrealistic to think we're going to be able to force people, in great numbers, to do something they're not going to want to do."

Katrina's message was not lost on Galveston, Texas, where officials evacuating the city in the face of Hurricane Rita allowed residents to take their pets with them on escape buses - a marked contrast to the New Orleans policy.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, officials started to plan for animal evacuations last year, but Katrina has focused their efforts.

They are in the vanguard of 16 states now assembling veterinarians, animal experts and laypeople into voluntary, county-based rescue teams that would evacuate and shelter animals during a disaster.

Some U.S. lawmakers and animal advocates are now saying the federal government needs a plan, too.

Katrina "has really shined the spotlight on the absence of a federal policy on animal rescue and relief during disaster," Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said in an interview from Gonzales, La., where the Humane Society is operating what it describes at the world's largest animal shelter at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.

Other animals have been brought to a shelter in Baton Rouge, where the animals can live adjacent to a shelter for their owners.

But thousands of animals were left behind, and packs of newly wild dogs now roam the wreckage of New Orleans.

On Thursday, five U.S. congressmen introduced a bipartisan bill that would mandate states and municipalities to provide evacuation plans for pets and service animals, such as guide dogs, in order to qualify for FEMA funding.

Also, Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) and Sen. John Ensign (R., Nev.) have asked President Bush to appoint an animal rescue czar for Katrina. That has not yet happened.

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

During Hurricane Ophelia this month, three of the state's coastal counties set up shelters to house pets before the storm hit.

North Carolina also has plans to provide emergency generators for feeding and ventilation systems for large farms. Meat-processing plants are even on call to speed up animal processing rather than have livestock lost to a storm and rotting carcasses become a health hazard.

The New Jersey Animal Emergency Working Group, a coalition of government and private organizations, recognized early on that many humans will not leave their homes without their pets, said Nancy Halpern, New Jersey state veterinarian.

Or, if they do, they will try to return to their animals before it's safe, she said.

"Our [evacuation] plans say do not leave your pets behind," said Halpern.

But turning the idea into an implementable plan has been difficult. The Red Cross, the chief sheltering resource for people, does not allow pets in its shelters.

"Humans come first - we understand that," said Halpern. "Essentially, what we've done is establish a parallel path to the human response."

That means Camden County could provide separate buses for pets and their owners. Montgomery County in Pennsylvania could use a portable corral to shelter cows from Fox Chase Farm, a working farm and educational center in Northeast Philadelphia. People staying at a local high school might use the maintenance shed to house their pets.

In this region, Bucks, Chester and Montgomery Counties are now forming County Animal Response Teams. Camden, Gloucester and Burlington Counties are also developing plans. Delaware County has no team yet.

Philadelphia's team, which is still organizing a plan, will have to account for pets, carriage horses, laboratory animals and the thousands of animals at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Joe Buttito is the Animal Response Team coordinator for Bradford County on Pennsylvania's northeastern border with New York, one of the few in full operation.

His team was deployed on April 2 when flooding of the Susquehanna River killed a number of calves and left four dogs and a cat in need of shelter.

Now he is working out of the Humane Society shelter in Gonzales and venturing into New Orleans every day to save pets with an organized rescue team.

Last Monday, he was sweating inside a trailer in Gonzales, assessing animals as they came into the shelter at the end of his eighth day on the ground. That day he had 30 dogs, 20 cats, a Burmese python, and a cockatiel on hand.

Those animals will be photographed and tagged, many of them implanted with an identifying microchip, and their information put on the Web site www.petfinder.com so their owners can find them.

Without forgetting the human safety factor, Buttito said he has been overtaken by sympathy for the plight of the confused, frightened, emaciated animals, and said emergency preparation starts at home.

"I would hope, in the future, that people have a plan for evacuation," he said.

Jeffrey Hamer, a veterinarian for the state of New Jersey who was responsible for organizing the county response teams, returned last week from the Mississippi Coast.

He was struck by the people who had lost everything but found joy in a pet's salvation.

"The house I can replace, everything I can replace," he recalled hearing, again and again, "but this is the most important thing to me."

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 610-313-8173 or jshields@phillynews.com.

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