When my husband and I evacuated our New Orleans home the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, we assumed that this would be an unexpected, albeit nice visit with my parents in the Chicago area. Surely, we’d head back in a week or so. On August 29, 2005, we learned our fate; there was no going home.
In shock, I took comfort in the fact that our beloved pets – four dogs and two cats – were safe with us. It soon became clear that many other people were not so fortunate and thousands of dogs and cats were in danger of dying due to starvation, heat or worse. Animal lovers from around the country poured into New Orleans and Mississippi, selflessly sacrificing their time and money to save as many pets as they could.
I admired their efforts and yet, I felt for those owners who were unable to bring their pets with them and desperately tried to track them down. In some cases, the pet was found only to have the new owner refuse to reunite them, claiming that the animal had been abandoned, or neglected prior to the storm.
When I interviewed people frantically looking for their animals, I started to have nightmares. The most vivid opened with me sitting in a beautiful old theater and spotting my pets near a woman a few rows away. I called out to her, “Those are my dogs and cats! I need to take them home!” The woman turned toward me and said, “You can’t. You have no home.”
The first time I needed to take one of my dogs to a vet in Illinois, I was asked about his breed and where he was from. I said Louisiana and the tech said, “Oh, a Katrina dog!” No, I corrected her. He is from Louisiana and so am I.
Five years later, and having relocated to the Chicago area, I still occasionally hear people refer to their Katrina dog or cat. Though I am glad that these animals survived, honestly, the label makes me wince. Had we not been able to transport our pets with us, would someone else be calling my 13-year-old Catahoula, Desoto, their “Katrina” dog? Would he have a different name? Would all four dogs, even our Pit Bull mix, Shelby, have been saved? Our cats, Cricket and Bruiser Bear, are siblings. Would they have been separated?
Of course, the alternative would’ve been far worse. In the weeks and months after the biggest man-made disaster in U.S. history, I heard from friends and neighbors what happened to people and pets who were not rescued in time. I saw graphic images on websites and in the news. They are impossible to forget, and they shouldn’t be forgotten.
Fortunately, the lessons gleaned from this tragedy should prevent any animal from being left behind again. Thanks to the PETS Act, people are allowed to bring their pets with them to an emergency shelter. The Louisiana SPCA has since rebuilt, giving safe haven to homeless and unwanted pets in a beautiful, modern shelter. Plus, its volunteer and adoption programs are stronger than ever.
Civic activism became a new, necessary way of life. Local animal lovers and the LA/SPCA persuaded the city council to pass the Intact Dog Ordinance earlier this year, a major victory in the cause against pet overpopulation.
Challenges remain, but as a Katrina survivor once said, New Orleans will always be between storms. The difference is now we are prepared to ride them out.