Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pets are family, too

Politicians and government officials, take heed – if you don’t think animals are important enough to be included in your region’s evacuation plan, you are dead wrong. And some of your citizens will sacrifice their lives to prove it.

The mayhem that occurred when hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans was a stark example of the bond people share with their pets. When I travelled to the city to rescue animals in the weeks that followed, I encountered evidence of this devotion firsthand.

At one destroyed house I happened upon, I found three frightened, disoriented dogs hiding under a woodpile. With a neighbor’s help, I managed to reach the dogs’ owner by cellular phone. The man explained that he had stayed with his dogs on the roof until a helicopter finally rescued him as the floodwaters rose to a dangerous level. He had already refused help for himself many times, despite the knowledge that he might die with his dogs. Finally, just in time, he made the heart-wrenching decision to save his own life.

When I told him that I’d found and fed three of his dogs, he dissolved into tears of mingled emotion: joy for the three that were alive, and grief for the one who had vanished.

A logistical argument debating the value of human life versus animal rights is irrelevant to those who receive creature comforts from their animals. Perhaps they suffer from social anxiety, loneliness, or lack of faith in people. Maybe they are shut-ins, or dependent on service dogs because they are blind or deaf. Or they may simply feel a moral responsibility not to leave their family’s animals to die alone.

As New Orleans works to recover from hurricane Gustav, happy reunions are still occurring at the Louisiana SPCA in Algiers. For the past couple of weeks, staff saw hundreds of people come and pick up their pets following a grand-scale evacuation that included the animals, a historical first. It wasn’t just the pet guardians that were touched to have their animals back in their care, Louisiana SPCA’s Shelly Patton said today.

“There were many times during the reunions that the staff were reduced to tears,” said Patton, the shelter’s webmaster and facility manager. “Not only because the people were happy to see the animals – their faces just lit up – but also because the animals were so happy to see the people.”

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