Legislators Help Pets in Disasters


With hurricane season under way and images of Katrina lingering, state lawmakers are turning to the plight of pets in emergencies - an issue among a host of animal-related legislation to reach governors' desks in recent weeks. 

Since May 22, the governors of Florida , Hawaii , New Hampshire and Vermont have signed bills that provide more protection for pets during emergencies. In Louisiana, where animal rights groups estimate thousands of pets died during Katrina, a bill passed by the Legislature June 15 has drawn national attention as the most sweeping attempt to keep pets and their owners together during disasters.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would require states to have emergency evacuation plans for pets in place. Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) have introduced a similar bill that could add federal funding to help states carry out the mandate, though no amount has been specified.

The flurry of new laws and bills has gone beyond pets in emergencies. The Humane Society of the United States reports that, since January 2006,

  • Three states ( Kansas , Maryland and Montana ) have restricted the ownership of exotic animals - including bears, lions and tigers - as pets.
  • Three states ( Colorado , Georgia and Illinois ) have increased penalties for owners of dogs deemed "vicious" or "dangerous."
  • Illinois became the first state to ban certain felons from owning aggressive dogs; among felons specifically targeted are drug manufacturers, who were blamed for using dogs to attack law enforcers.
  • Six states ( Alabama , Illinois , Mississippi , Oregon , South Carolina and Washington ) have clamped down on animal fighting, including for gambling purposes.
  • Arizona and Washington outlawed bestiality, or sexual relations between a human and an animal, bringing to 32 the number of states in which the act is a crime.

In addition, since 2005, legislatures in 21 states have outlawed "Internet hunting" after a Web site premiered offering customers the chance to kill live animals from the safety of their homes, according to the Humane Society. 

The post-Katrina pet evacuation laws are about more than saving animals. Victims in storm-affected areas in many cases refused to leave their pets behind.

An October 2005 Zogby International poll found that 49 percent of adults said they would not leave disaster areas without their pets. In New Orleans , 44 percent of those who did not evacuate during Katrina claimed they stayed because of their pets, according to the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

A bill sponsored by Louisiana state Sen. Heulette "Clo" Fontenot (R) would be the most far-reaching to date if signed into law, as expected, by Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D). Both houses approved the bill unanimously.

Like the new Florida and New Hampshire laws, the bill requires that service animals, such as guide dogs, be evacuated with their owners. But it also calls for the establishment of pet shelters in the state and an identification system to reunite pets and their owners after emergencies. The measure, which applies only to cats and dogs, would require local authorities to outfit the animals with bar-coded tags during emergencies.

Fontenot told Stateline.org he introduced his legislation after seeing televised images from Hurricane Katrina in which service animals were left behind.

"I thought it was totally unconscionable to take a person's only source of independence away from them," Fontenot said.

The plan is expected to cost the state about $4 million, according to Fontenot, who said federal regulations add to the cost of evacuating pets. In temperatures above 85 degrees, for example, pets must be evacuated in refrigerated trucks, Fontenot said. Temperatures above 85 degrees are routine in Louisiana .

"Those refrigerated trucks are very expensive. We could easily transport those same animals in an open-air flatbed trailer at one quarter of the cost," he said.

Like Louisiana's measure, the Florida , Hawaii and New Hampshire laws call for authorities to develop plans for pet evacuation. Vermont 's new law requires that state and local emergency planning commissions include representatives from animal rescue organizations and removes from civil liability those who voluntarily shelter pets during emergencies.

In 2005, Maine became the first state to sign an "animal emergency" bill into law. The Maine law established an Animal Response Team to respond to disasters affecting animals. 

Animal rights representatives have hailed the state and federal initiatives. Ledy Van Kavage, senior director of legislation and legal training for the American SPCA, said it would be a disgrace if Louisiana did not enact pet evacuation legislation. 

"Let's face it, all eyes are on Louisiana ," Van Kavage said.

Meanwhile, other pet-related legislation has moved speedily through statehouses nationwide. 

In the past year, at least 15 states have introduced "dangerous" or "vicious" dog bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which tracks state legislation. At least 29 states and the District of Columbia already have laws in place, according to NCSL. Only Ohio's statute bans certain breeds of dogs, including pit bulls and Rottweilers.

States also are getting tough on animal fighting, such as dogfighting, cockfighting and - in the recent cases of Alabama and Mississippi - hog-dog fighting, in which trained dogs attack penned feral hogs. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) signed a bill to outlaw the sport on March 28, and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) followed suit on April 13. Louisiana became the first state to criminalize the practice in 2004.

Cockfighting remains legal in only two states, New Mexico and Louisiana . But that hasn't prevented some lawmakers from voicing their disapproval. A proposal introduced in January by New Mexico state Sen. John Grubesic (D) sought to make cockfighting the official "state disgrace." 

The start of hurricane season, however, has served as a grim reminder of Katrina and has made pet evacuation during emergencies a top priority for legislators and animal rights groups alike.

"I think it's a good animal welfare policy, but I also think it's a good public welfare policy," said Dan Paden, a researcher with the domestic animal department of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "It goes a long way toward not forcing Americans to abandon, in disasters, all they have left of their lives, which are their animals."


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