Ten years ago, I was among the lucky ones, able to evacuate New Orleans ahead of the storm and take my pets with me. I had no idea that it would be more than a month before we could return—and even then, we were among the luckiest. For thousands of New Orleans-area residents and their pets, Hurricane Katrina was a devastating personal tragedy that stretched on long after the floodwaters subsided.
The upside for the animals who survived was a national spotlight that brought resources and expertise into the region, first, to assist with their rescue and later, to assist in developing programs that would ensure that the disaster of separating pets from their owners would never be repeated.
Louisiana passed a pet evacuation bill in 2006, and when Hurricane Gustav appeared in 2008, on the third anniversary of Katrina, pets were welcome on buses and trains carrying families out of the city. The Louisiana SPCA also lent a hand, with help from ARNO and other local rescue groups, distributing dog crates and supplies to families who didn’t have the tools to safely leave town with their pets. But there were still losses, and when I returned that week to my own uninhabited neighborhood, I was able to rescue remarkable, yet mysteriously abandoned, dogs, among them: a white Pit Bull named Babe; Doug, a blue brindle who became my own; and even a pair of English Bulldogs (I named them Harold and Maude), one of whom was wearing a dog tag that was later traced to an unrelated dog who had perished in Katrina.
Now, on yet another anniversary of the disaster, we can celebrate great gains. The Louisiana SPCA, which also serves as the city’s only open-intake shelter, has completed the second phase of their impressive new campus, adding 32,000 square feet to their existing space. Neighboring Jefferson Parish has also just broken ground for an equally large facility on the Westbank. Both parishes have seen a remarkable rise in animal services: free and low-cost spay/neuter programs, increased partnerships for placement of abandoned animals, and training and educational programs for pet owners. Rescue groups have sprung up across the city, and the Pit Bull, always popular in New Orleans, has come even more into the mainstream—you’ll see them everywhere if you visit the city. Even the local Basset Hound rescue takes Pit Bulls.
But despite the increased resources and foster organizations on the ground, one can’t help but think that the problem of strays really hasn’t been solved. Fewer animals are coming into the shelters (about 8,000 annually in New Orleans, compared to 10,000 in 2004), but more are being held, in some cases for years, in foster care with rescue groups while awaiting adoption. Those grass-roots organizations (including my own) aren’t required to report their intake statistics, so the total number remains a mystery.
Unfortunately, poverty wasn’t among the things washed away by Katrina. Recent numbers suggest that the poor in New Orleans are poorer than they were 10 years ago, and the rich are richer. Spay/neuter is still inaccessible for many, either for financial reasons or because they lack transportation to get their pets to a vet. Breeding is still seen as a viable moneymaker in communities where jobs are scarce. Insurance companies are increasingly forcing mortgage-holders to give up large-breed dogs erroneously labeled as risky or give up their required coverage. State law still requires that animals seized in dogfighting cases be immediately euthanized, regardless of disposition. All of these flaws contribute to the flow of unwanted animals into the overburdened shelter system, and to a culture that implies that animals are easily disposable burdens.
We need to remind ourselves that one of the great lessons of Katrina was the power of collaboration to reach a common goal. The urgency of the situation, which was literally and vividly a matter of life and death, compelled people to overlook their differences in order to work together. This wasn’t always easy. Then, as naturally happens, the sense of unity that flowed in the face of chaos ebbed after things began to seem normal again.
While the city spotlights its new residential towers and other glossy signs of economic health, the issues are still life-and-death for many families struggling to hold things together and care for their pets.
As advocates for animals and their owners, we can waste valuable time pointing fingers, or pointing out what some other person or organization should be doing. However, we need to look to ourselves and find ways that we can contribute to filling gaps in resources and education. We need to remember that we can only succeed by working together.