10/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sheltering Animals from the Storm

The last couple weeks have had the nation bracing for the triple-fisted punch of Gustav, then Hanna, then the latest threat, Ike, which has left millions of homes in Houston and Galveston without power, gas, or running water. The damage has been severe, and we don't yet know the complete picture on what's happened to the animals in the affected communities. But we do know that pets have fared much better than they did three years ago when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, thanks to members of Congress who took decisive action in the period in-between.

Led by Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Representatives Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Chris Shays (R-Conn.), the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act set a national policy on how to deal with animals in disasters in a post-Katrina environment. In order to qualify for federal recovery funding, cities or states must submit plans detailing their disaster preparedness programs and how they will accommodate households with pets and service animals.

The legislation, backed by the Humane Society Legislative Fund and The Humane Society of the United States, passed the House by a landslide vote of 349 to 24, passed the Senate unanimously, and was signed into law by President Bush on October 6, 2006. (The president, when asked to name the first thing he would grab if faced with a Katrina-like disaster, reportedly replied, "Barney"--his Scottish terrier.)

The difference in the field before and after the PETS Act has been like night and day. During Katrina, many people refused to leave the disaster zone because they were not allowed to take their pets with them into evacuation vehicles or emergency shelters. The absence of a government policy on how to accommodate pets put the lives of many people in danger.

But when Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana two weeks ago, people with pets and service dogs proved more willing to evacuate than in previous disasters. And while some chose to remain home and ride out Hurricane Ike, early signs of a steady exodus to safer locations--with pets in tow--were encouraging. Importantly, for the people now in need of rescue, our troops on the ground are telling us that when the boats and helicopters arrive, the dogs and cats are allowed to get in, too.

As Senator Lautenberg said, "People see pets as part of their family and they do not want to leave any family members behind. As we learned during Hurricane Katrina, when people need to choose between safety and their pets, some of them will choose their pets.  Now, they don't need to make that choice."

It's a rare day when a new public policy has such an immediate impact on the ground to improve the lives of people and animals. When you have to evacuate your home and you're disconnected from other social institutions like your job or your place of worship, just having your pet with you and knowing your best friend is safe can be an enormous emotional comfort to get people through the crisis. 

We are grateful to federal lawmakers who recognized the bond that exists between people and animals, and the importance of pets in our lives. Thanks to their work to improve the nation's capacity to respond to emergencies of a catastrophic nature, we are a giant step closer to ensuring that no pet is left behind.

That's not the end of the story in a vast emergency like the one now besetting coastal Texas and Louisiana, of course. People and animals alike now face shortages of food and clean water, uncertain shelter, dangerous conditions, and uncertain weeks ahead. The HSUS disaster teams have been deployed to southeastern Texas and are assisting, along with other organizations and agencies. The PETS Act kept many families together. Now we must all reach out to make sure they stay that way.