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“No Pets” Policy Traumatizes Survivors and Impedes Evacuation

By Carol A. Tavani, M.D., M.S., F.A.P.A.

This opinion piece was published on Sept. 15, 2005, in the Hartford Courant.

For some victims of Hurricane Katrina, it was the final blow. Their homes and neighborhoods had already been mangled by wind and water in the worst natural disaster in American history. Some had lost friends or family members. But then these would-be evacuees discovered that rescue would carry one more painful price.

Survivors could get a seat on a boat or bus—but only if they obeyed orders from authorities to leave their dog or cat behind in the disaster area to face death from starvation or dehydration. One 98-year-old woman was forced to abandon her dog, her only companion for many years. Before one young boy was allowed to board a bus to safety in Houston, police took his dog from his arms.

This “no pets” policy inflicted horrific cruelty on the animals involved, as television footage of starving animals surrounded by floodwaters has vividly demonstrated. But as a neuropsychiatrist, I want to offer two additional reasons for authorities to be more compassionate the next time disaster strikes.

First, we have to consider the psychological damage inflicted on human survivors. In my work, I regularly witness the powerful emotional bonds people form with their animal companions. Forcing disaster victims to abandon animals they regard as family members is likely to inflict profound and persistent emotional trauma. That’s especially true for the elderly.

Second, ignoring people’s feelings for their animals actually impedes evacuation efforts. Dogs and cats and parakeets are completely different from cars, television sets, or other inanimate possessions that most people will walk away from with no more than a second thought.

In countless news stories, survivors hunkered down in ruined or flooded homes said they were refusing to leave for one reason: they did not want to abandon their animals. CNN carried the story of an elderly blind woman in New Orleans who politely but firmly declined to evacuate until authorities allowed her to take her service dog.

That attitude is both compassionate and consistent with Louisiana law, which correctly regards abandoning animals as an illegal act of cruelty. And it is also in accord with the federal government’s own guidelines on animal handling in a disaster, which were crafted years ago in cooperation with animal organizations but apparently abandoned in the wake of Katrina.

The situation has improved since the first few days. Some later evacuees were permitted to take their pets with them. And authorities have slowly begun to allow animal rescue groups into New Orleans to rescue abandoned dogs and cats, though many animals have already perished. But such commonsense steps should have been the policy from the start.

As the floodwaters recede, we are beginning to get an idea of the terrible human toll and the steep financial damage exacted by Hurricane Katrina. But another key part of coming to terms with this tragedy is figuring out ways to improve our response the next time disaster strikes.

No economist or insurance adjuster can hang a price tag on the emotional trauma caused by the “no pets” policy. But we know it caused real damage—and we know it didn’t have to happen. Next time, authorities must ensure it doesn’t.

Carol A. Tavani, M.D., M.S., F.A.P.A., is a neuropsychiatrist and a member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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