Katrina: How the no-kill philosophy came to disaster response

Hurricane Katrina blew the doors off the nation’s disaster response establishment. The damage wrought by the storm and the subsequent breaking of the levees in the greater New Orleans area caused one of the worst disasters in recorded U.S. history. Certainly, it was the first to be covered by the 24-hour cycle of cable news.

This was especially true for the animal rescue component of the disaster. Historically, the protocol for such a disaster was that the governor’s office invited national animal organizations into a state through the office of the state veterinarian. The rescue organizations then worked locally with municipal animal control until the local agency asked them to leave, or the state vet declared the emergency ended. At that point, the national animal rescue and sheltering organizations would obediently strike their tents and leave, turning custody of the disaster-affected animals in their care back to local animal control agencies, who would hold them for return to their owners or adoption or, a more likely scenario, would eventually have them killed.

Compounding the problem was the fact that, surprisingly, there were no official plans to manage people’s pets in the face of a devastating event like Katrina. As a result, human emergency shelters absolutely refused entry to pets brought along by people who had evacuated on their own.

Hurricane Katrina was the first natural disaster in which Best Friends Animal Society was a major player. However, our allegiance was not to a state or local agency. It was to the animals. Best Friends was the first national organization on the ground, thanks to our connection at the time with Bert Smith, director of animal control for Jefferson Parish, who had transported animals from his most damaged shelter to the inland fairgrounds at Franklinton, Louisiana.

Best Friends relieved Bert’s team at Franklinton on August 30, one day after the storm blew through. We put in a small team to care for the animals there, and then began field work that included land and water rescue of animals from the neighborhoods of Jefferson and Orleans parishes.

Thanks to the generosity of Pam Perez, founder of St. Francis Animal Sanctuary in Tylertown, Mississippi, we were able to establish an emergency rescue shelter there, and for the next nine months, Best Friends staff and volunteers cared for and rehabilitated thousands of dogs, cats and exotic pets, the latter ranging from iguanas and pythons to fish, ferrets and turtles.

In addition to being the first rescue group on the ground, Best Friends was the last one to leave. When the other national organizations pulled up stakes on the order of the state veterinarian in mid-October, we held our ground, continued to rescue animals, and took responsibility for many of the volunteers left behind by departing organizations.

We did this not for the sake of defiance. We did it because the no-kill principles that have always guided our work would not allow us to return animal disaster victims to overwhelmed agencies, where they would face almost certain death. And to the chagrin of the establishment, hundreds of individual rescuers and smaller rescue organizations kept working as well — each motivated by a commitment to no-kill principles. Ethics had trumped administrative tidiness.

In December of 2005, we opened a second emergency shelter at an abandoned food and entertainment complex in Metairie, Louisiana. We called it Celebration Station, and it served as a barracks not only for animals, but also for a squadron of humane animal trappers. Trapping was necessary because by that point, many of the dogs and cats who remained at large throughout the New Orleans area had gone into hiding, including many puppies and kittens born following the storm.

Katrina brought to light many of the weaknesses in the existing system for dealing with animals after a disaster. Eventually, Congress got into the act and passed the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which linked a local county’s eligibility for FEMA disaster funding to the requirement that an evacuation plan be in place for local residents who want to be evacuated with their pets. This was a first, and it has ensured that the type of wholesale abandonment of pets that we saw during Katrina won’t happen again.

While all of us at Best Friends were deeply saddened and even traumatized by what transpired in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we were and continue to be proud of the commitment demonstrated by our staff and volunteers, as well as the unflagging support of our members and friends.

As with all of our work, we were driven by a belief in the intrinsic value of the life of every homeless pet. Our skills in handling and caring for animals, honed for 20 years at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, served us well during Katrina, and these skills continue to be the centerline of all the work that we do across the country.

Katrina provided many lessons and life-changing experiences that we will highlight periodically in this blog between now and September. For those of you reading this who volunteered with us or another organization in the wake of the storm, our hats are off to you.

However, the scale of the disaster that continues in our nation’s shelters (more than 9,000 animals killed every day) dwarfs the scale of the disaster that Hurricane Katrina proved to be for the animals of the Gulf Coast. It’s a perspective that keeps us mindful of the task before us, and a reminder that only together can we Save Them All.

Gregory Castle