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August 28, 2009

Four Years After Katrina, Animal Welfare in Gulf Region Looking Up

The Humane Society of the United States

August 29, 2009, marks the fourth year since Hurricane Katrina barreled into Louisiana and Mississippi, but the fear and chaos felt in the ensuing days, weeks and months aren’t easily forgotten.

Recovery is still underway, although in some areas, activity has slowed as local and state governments—as well as residents—struggle financially. Still, important strides have been made in the right direction, and the forecast is hopeful.

The situation for animal welfare in the Gulf Coast region continues to improve as well. In Katrina’s aftermath, many hidden cracks in the system were revealed: namely the lack of a disaster plan for pets, as well as the fact that far too few animals were spayed or neutered.

The HSUS led rescue efforts of more than 10,000 animals, yet many more could not be saved.

Today, we’re still in the Gulf Coast with a major presence for animals and have dedicated resources and millions of dollars to recovery efforts.

Ongoing Progress

We’re helping to rebuild and improve shelters and veterinary care and increase spay/neuter programs to reduce pet overpopulation. We’re collaborating with the vet schools of two universities in the region to enhance the learning experience of students to include shelter medicine and community outreach.

And we helped reshape laws with respect to animals in disasters so that our federal, state, and local agencies would never again be so unprepared to help them.

Legislating for Animal Protection

One of the most important pieces of federal legislation to come out of Katrina was the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, signed into law 13 months later. The law requires local and state emergency preparedness authorities to include in their evacuation plans how they will accommodate household pets and service animals in the event of a major disaster.

Additionally, 20 states—including Louisiana—now have laws to include animals in disaster planning. We focused our attention on coastal states and those most likely to be threatened by natural disasters, and now we are working to implement disaster plans in other states, as well.

Help from the Feds

One of the greatest Katrina lessons learned by all, including federal agencies, is that saving pets saves human lives.

The HSUS works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Federal Emergency Management Agency on disaster plans for animal welfare.

The USDA now has a division that largely focuses on emergency management issues for pets and service animals, and The HSUS worked in Congress to secure appropriations funding for USDA’s disaster planning for animals.

FEMA established a program during last year’s hurricane season to coordinate actions among federal agencies, The HSUS and other organizations. The animal community worked shoulder to shoulder with several federal and state agencies during the 2008 storms in Texas and Louisiana. 

Tackling Pet Overpopulation

During work on Katrina recovery, it quickly became apparent that pet overpopulation in the Gulf Coast was a substantial problem, and it was important to expand spay/neuter programs. The HSUS collaborated with other animal welfare groups to provide low-cost or free spay/neuter services.

To better understand the problems associated with animal care and overpopulation, The HSUS partnered with Maddie’s Fund (a pet rescue foundation) to research attitudes and behaviors about spaying and neutering.

Based on findings, we developed a $2 million public awareness campaign in three Louisiana and Mississippi cities to educate residents about the importance of getting their pets “fixed” to reduce unwanted animals—and the number who have to be euthanized.

The campaign ultimately will come to 11 media markets across Louisiana and Mississippi. The HSUS also has given or committed $350,000 to directly support low-cost spaying and neutering efforts and is tracking the campaign’s impact on clinics, shelters and veterinarians.

New spay/neuter clinics are opening across Louisiana and Mississippi because of the public awareness generated by our ad campaign, and because there’s an increased demand for low-cost services. We are also exporting findings from the Gulf Coast project to other states, helping animal welfare groups across the country become more effective messengers on spaying and neutering.

New Shelter for the Animals

In Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish, ground was broken earlier this summer for a new state-of-the-art shelter being built with donations from The HSUS and FEMA.

The HSUS continues to help the existing shelter there, which was inundated with 8 feet of water during Katrina. Veterinarians and experts from The HSUS and other animal welfare groups have lent a hand to bolster operations so that fewer animals are euthanized, more animals are spayed or neutered, and more animals are adopted into the community.

Gulf Coast Veterinary Program

The HSUS has given $1.7 million in grants to the veterinarian schools of Louisiana State University and Mississippi State University School to provide students with a service learning experience focusing on animal wellness, population dynamics, disaster medicine, animal behavior, and animal welfare.

To date, more than 200 students have participated, and in Mississippi alone, more than 13,000 spay/neuter surgeries have been performed.

Win-Win Situation

The HSUS has committed $600,000 to build a permanent veterinary clinic, holding area, and education facility at Dixon Correctional Institute. In the weeks following Katrina, thanks to DCI Warden James LeBlanc, a large concrete dairy barn on the property became an overflow facility, when the temporary shelter in Gonzalez couldn’t hold any more animals.

In little time, veterinarians and animal behaviorists trained inmates to care for the refugee dogs and birds; runs and cages were built and cleaned; and sick and frightened animals were calmed and treated.

The correctional institute and the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine together will run the clinic. Students, under the direction of faculty, will provide spay/neuter services to local animal welfare groups. When completed in March 2010, the clinic and holding facility will include a fully equipped surgical suite.

In total, The HSUS has spent or committed an estimated $34 million dollars on all of its operations since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including immediate disaster response, reconstruction funds directly to 45 hurricane-ravaged animal shelters and wildlife rehabilitation centers—including the St. Bernard Parish shelter, the Humane Society of South Mississippi and the Louisiana SPCA—spay and neuter initiatives and legislative efforts.

We have aimed to improve the capacity for animal welfare in the Gulf Coast, making it stronger than it was before Katrina struck. Four years later, we are even closer to achieving that goal.

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