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Hurricane's impact on animals
Scripps Howard News Service


September 12, 2005

We may be a nation divided politically, but one thing that unites Americans is our "pitch in" spirit. No matter our political leanings, we toss differences aside and help others stranded during emergencies.

The stories pouring out of Louisiana and Mississippi during these past weeks are riveting. Americans leaving their families and taking unpaid leave from their jobs to help out by traveling thousands of miles with donated food, clothes, and sleeping bags. This resolve is a patriotic gem we should polish, hold high and treasure.

Even more heart-warming is what seems to be a stronger-than-ever determination to rescue animals as well as human life. Human life comes first, of course. But during the initial rescue operation effort, news coverage was interspersed with tales of storm victims forced to leave their furry family members behind.

I listened to a national radio interview with an elderly man evacuated from Mississippi's flood-ravaged coast. He said he was thrilled his human family was safe, but he could not stop worrying about the three cats he left behind. Rescue workers refused to allow him and other early storm evacuees to take pets with them.

This missive was posted on the Internet by a Louisiana animal welfare group right after Katrina struck: "During a time of disaster, such as the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, animals and pets are last on the list to receive aid and shelter. ... The number of homeless pets in the region is an abomination; it will be in the tens of thousands, if not more. ... During evacuation many families and individuals were told that they couldn't take their pets with them - a total heartbreak for owners who've lovingly raised that pet over the years, only to be forced to say an immediate goodbye, possibly forever."

Just days later, the (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger reported an apparent change in policy. The Coast Guard started to allow evacuees to bring their pets with them and the National Guard actually helped animal rescue groups as they waded through still-flooded parts of New Orleans to look for and rescue animals trapped since the storm.

Then came stories of the last storm ravaged hold-outs who refused to leave flooded homes because they didn't want to leave their beloved pets to die.

The Humane Society's southeast regional director told the Washington Post, "Some of these people will live on the streets and won't go to a shelter if they have to be separated from their pets. ... I respect that, because I wouldn't either."

That goes double, or septuple, for me. I can't imagine leaving behind my three dogs or four horses without human protection. But I must say this is the first time in a storm rescue operation I've ever heard others voice the same level of concern for animal life.

Perhaps it is because Katrina is the worst natural disaster ever to strike the United States. Perhaps it is because the rescue operation has lasted and will continue last much longer than most. But maybe, just maybe, it is because the number of Americans who treasure their furry family members and respect them as individuals too precious to lose is growing.

As of late last week, rescuers had pulled more than 1,000 stranded animals from deserted parts of New Orleans. Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, said it is just a start. The need for animal rescue is much more expansive. Pacelle estimates about 60 percent of U.S. households have pets and more than 50,000 animals were probably stranded by Katrina.

The Noah's rescue Ark sailing out of the Gulf region includes not just dogs, cats, birds and rodents, but pot-bellied pigs, iguanas, chinchillas, even an albino python. I gave my first Katrina donation check to a human rescue group. But my second followed quickly to a Maryland horse rescue that immediately dispatched rescue supplies and personnel to help four-leggeds left destitute by Katrina.

There's little good that comes of a category 5 hurricane. But if one of Katrina's legacies is we're becoming a more humane nation, that's one smidgen of hope we can all treasure.


Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.
E-mail bonnieerbe(at)

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