Out of the devastated South come wonderful photographs of people hugging cats to their chests as they wade through the water, a man handing a trembling beagle out through the window of a submerged house, a girl running from a wrecked gas station carrying a stray dog in her arms. Each image illustrates that even in times of great personal hardship, many human beings look out for all living beings. Hotels in Houston that normally do not allow animals through their doors have recognized that families fleeing their homes include other-than-human beings and have abandoned their “no pets” policies. They deserve our patronage when all this is over.
Millions — that is a reasonable estimate of the number of animals who have perished in this hurricane and its aftermath. Consider the feral cat colonies, the terrestrial and arboreal wildlife, such as squirrels, and the slow-moving animals, such as opossums. People in boats report seeing the bodies of raccoons, pigs, chickens, and foxes in the water. And then there are the animals who, by the thousands, were deliberately or simply unthinkingly abandoned.
One of our own staff members has a relative in New Orleans who carefully locked her two cats inside a first floor bathroom when she evacuated, thinking that she would be back in a day or two. Her neighborhood is Atlantis now, the cats are dead, and she is catatonic. Dogs were left behind, still attached to their miserable chains in backyards, where they could only swim in place until they died of exhaustion as the waters rose. Panic-stricken rabbits drowned slowly as the waters rose in their hutches. Many people didn’t stop to think that animals behind the locked doors and windows of evacuated houses had no way of getting out. They were not even given a fighting chance at escape.
This is not a matter of crying after the fact, although there is enough room for that. It is a plea to remember how to save animals in the next weather emergency or other disaster that announces its approach. Whenever there is advance notice of an approaching hurricane, forest fire, or spring flood, PETA sends out urgent advisories. We dispatch TV public service announcements in which Rue McClanahan and William Shatner urge people to, please, never, ever leave an animal behind when fleeing a catastrophe. But radio and TV stations and newspapers often do not carry such appeals, and so we see the same tragedies played out again and again.
Please, right now, while you are perhaps wondering what you can do to help with this disaster, devise a plan that can save the lives of your entire family later on. Think where you will go and where you can take your animals if you have to evacuate (the 10,000 who entered the Superdome were not allowed to take animals inside with them). Learn your options, plan your escape route. And do not put off the task of setting aside enough dry food, bottled water, and medicine for at least a week for each of the humans, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, birds, and any other family members. For the nonhumans, put aside a familiar piece of bedding, a sturdy carrier, a harness, a leash, and whatever else will provide security in case you must all flee. And make a list. If you know there are caged, chained, or otherwise confined animals in your neighborhood, look out for them if that day ever comes. You may be the only one who remembers to save them.