How Hurricane Katrina Changed Pets’ Legal Status

The loss of thousands of pets to the hurricane encouraged lawmakers to rethink society’s responsibility to animals

Hurricane Katrina plea for help
Roofs became pleas for help for people and their pets following Hurricane Katrina ROBERT GALBRAITH/Reuters/Corbis

About 250,000 pets were left behind when their owners evacuated for Hurricane Katrina a decade ago. People filled bathtubs with water and locked their dogs in bathrooms, assuming they’d return in a few days. Others who stayed behind with their animals were told by rescue workers that pets couldn’t come along. But despite volunteers' best efforts, at the end the toll rang in at more than 1,800 people and 150,000 pets killed by the hurricane and its aftermath, reports David Grimm for Buzzfeed.

While reporting for his book Citizen Canine, Grimm met Bass Lilly, one woman who made multiple trips back into the water-logged New Orleans to find and rescue the pets unwillingly left behind. He relates her story along with that of William Morgan, a veteran who uses a wheelchair after losing both legs to diabetes, yet still saved his apricot-colored poodle from drowning when the flood waters came. Both people testified in the Louisiana state legislature about the terrible cost of leaving animals behind.

Their stories, along with others, prompted lawmakers to enact the Pet Evacuation Bill, which requires authorities to take pets into account with their emergency-training and educate people on how to care for animals during natural disasters. Significantly, pets now must be evacuated with people. The federal government soon signed similar legislation, the PETS Act, into law. 

Grimm writes:

The legislation signaled a turning point in our relationship with cats and dogs. These were once wild creatures that, over thousands of years, became working animals, then pets, then companions. But something remarkable has occurred over the past couple of decades: Dogs and cats have become family members in our homes, and more like people in the eyes of the law. We spend billions on them, we fight over them in custody cases, and we’ve passed laws making them the most valued and protected animals in the country.

You can read Grimm’s full article and learn more about the legal legacy of the devastating hurricane at Buzzfeed.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.