Plan to Help Find Refuge For Pets During Disasters

Helen Green, who lives in Chesterfield County, had three dogs before she took in Sawyer, who was rescued from Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.
Helen Green, who lives in Chesterfield County, had three dogs before she took in Sawyer, who was rescued from Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. (By Dean Hoffmeyer -- Associated Press)
Associated Press
Thursday, March 15, 2007

RICHMOND -- If an emergency forces Helen Green to evacuate, she is sure about one thing: She wouldn't leave her four dogs behind, even if it meant risking her life.

"They're my best friends," the Chesterfield County resident said. "They're the glue that holds my life together."

A statewide initiative, prompted by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, aims to prevent Virginians from having to make such a choice. The state is working with veterinarians and animal-welfare organizations to create a network to help pet owners find emergency shelter with their animals.

The network will help state and local officials with planning and give them information about volunteer training, shelters where people can take pets and equipment to care for animals.

A law signed by President Bush requires states and localities to plan for pets or risk losing money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In response, Virginia's General Assembly mandated provisions for pets and farm animals in the state's emergency-response plan.

Animal-welfare advocates have been calling for the measures for years.

"It's good that it's finally being recognized instead of belittled and demeaned," said Peggy Allen, vice president of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies.

One of Green's dogs, Sawyer, became a refugee after Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast a year and a half ago. Sawyer was among more than 250 dogs and cats evacuated from Mississippi by volunteers from a Richmond veterinary clinic.

"I wonder sometimes about his owner," Green said. "They obviously loved him. I wonder if they got out."

There is no estimate of how many dogs and cats were evacuated to Virginia from the Gulf Coast after Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Estimates of animals killed or lost range in the hundreds of thousands.

Al Henry, a Lynchburg veterinarian, saw the worst during the two weeks he spent in St. Bernard Parish, next to the devastated Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

"There was nothing there," said Henry, a former president of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association.

Henry set up a makeshift animal shelter in a damaged warehouse in Chalmette. He took care of more than 450 animals in the shelter, dubbed Camp Lucky.

Animal-rescue workers followed the sound of barking dogs and sometimes found the owners dead in their homes. Some had died because they refused to leave without their pets.

"I'd hate for Virginia . . . to not have a plan for this," Henry said.

Virginia's veterinarians play a leading role in the agreement announced last month among public, nonprofit and professional organizations to set up a network for helping pet owners and their animals in a disaster.

The memorandum of understanding brings together the veterinary association, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

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