Who Let the Dogs Out?: The “Snowball” Effect of Natural Disasters on PETS

Who Let the Dogs Out?:

The “Snowball” Effect of Natural Disasters on PETS

By: Anesha Blakey

            Not too long ago, a friend of mine had convinced herself that I was afraid of dogs. On the contrary, I tried to explain that I am definitely not afraid of dogs [for the record, many of my friends and family members have pets that I am extremely fond of], I am just not a dog person. But I am also not a cat person. Instead, it’s more like when I see an animal out for a walk with its owner, I am not going to cross the street to avoid the dog. However, I am also not going to go out of my way to pet it either. If you ask me where this ambivalence, not fear, towards pets stems from, I think has to do with growing up without a pet. Nevertheless, no matter who you are or whether you are a dog, cat, or non-pet person, there are some things that hit us all in the feels. For instance, when you hear Sarah McLachlan sing “In the Arms of an Angel,” you can’t help but feel the pull on your heart strings when you see the horrifying images of abandoned and neglected animals. But lately, you don’t have to stay up until 3 a.m. to hear that harrowing melody between infomercials. Instead, following the recent destruction caused by the current hurricane season, the all too familiar images of displaced people and pets have been plastered across our television, computer, and cell phone screens on a perpetual live feed[RMA1] .

            While Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose may be fresh in our minds, the most significant hurricane that resonates in the memories of many millennials is Hurricane Katrina. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina bombarded many states in the Gulf Coast with devastation. The storm even meandered its way north, berating land-locked states, such as Kentucky, with torrential downpours. As a result, more than eighteen hundred people lost their lives, millions of people lost their belongings, and billions of dollars’ worth of damage was sustained during the storm and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.[1] However, one figure not often reported was the thousands of animals that lost their homes, their owners, and their families. It is estimated that 250,000 pets were abandoned as a result of Hurricane Katrina, with 150,000 of those animals dying before help could arrive.[2] As for the animals who did survive the storm, many were displaced and never reunited with their owners.

One image that captured the hearts of many during Hurricane Katrina was that of a 9-year-old boy being separated from his pet dog, “Snowball.”[3] Upon seeing how Snowball was tragically separated from its young owner, Congressman Tom Lantos said:

The scene from New Orleans of a 9-year-old little boy crying because he was not allowed to take his little white dog Snowball was too much to bear. Personally, I know I wouldn’t have been able to leave my little white dog Masko to a fate of almost certain death. As I watched the images of the heartbreaking choices the Gulf residents had to make, I was moved to find a way to prevent this from happening again.” [4]


Unlike the commonplace rigmarole of empty promises from politicians in a time of crisis, Congressman Lantos was in fact so moved that he and another Congressman, Christopher Shays, created a bi-partisan legislation entitled PETS.[5]

PETS, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, was signed by then-President George W. Bush in 2006.[6] PETS is actually an amendment to the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which is a federal law designed “to provide an orderly and continuing means of assistance by the Federal Government to State[BB2]  and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to alleviate the suffering and damage which result from [natural] disasters.”[7] However, after Katrina, it became quite apparent that the responsibility afforded to citizens under the Stafford Act did not extend to the pets of the citizens the Act sought to protect. Thus, the main purpose of PETS is “to ensure that State and local emergency preparedness operational plans address the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals following a major disaster or emergency.”[8]

For non-pet people, it may be difficult to understand just how deep the bond is between a pet and its owner. However, even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes that the bond between pet owners and their pets is so strong, it cannot be easily broken by Mother Nature.[9] As a result, in the midst of storms and evacuations, many pet owners do not evacuate disaster areas, particularly if the shelters and/or rescuers do not accept pets.

It may be too early to tell how PETS will affect animals after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose. However, one thing is for certain, almost 11 years after its passage, PETS has had a “snowball effect” on social media and how people evacuate natural disaster areas with their pets. For instance, once evacuation recommendations were released as Hurricane Irma approached the States, a popular post appeared on various social media outlets, erroneously advising Florida residents about PETS. The post read,

ATTENTION: If you are evacuating to a hotel/motel and they say they DON’T accept pets, don’t get ugly, but simply tell them that is against the law & FEMA established that after Hurricane Katrina!


The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS) was a bi-partisan initiative in the United States House of Representatives to require states seeking Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance to accommodate pets and service animals in their plans for evacuating residents facing disasters.”[10]


Although the post was likely made with the best of intentions, it was misleading. This is because while PETS mandates that the needs of pet owners are considered in developing evacuation plans and providing funds and assistance to shelters, the Act does not mandate that hotels and motels must accept animals.[11] This minor distinction between what privately-owned vs. publicly-funded facilities are and/or are not mandated to extend to animals during emergency situations shed a light on a class issue that haunted the aftermath Hurricane Katrina.[12]

During evacuation efforts for Hurricane Katrina, many hotels and motels actually did accept pet owners and their pets.[13] Shelters, however, and other publicly-funded accommodations prohibited pet owners from entering facilities with their animals.[14] Such disparate treatment between pet owners brought national attention to an appalling class distinction that ultimately had a devastating effect on the animals. Imagine the relief felt by many families as they were rescued from their rooftops, only to be heartbroken seconds later when they were told that their beloved pet must stay behind to fend for itself. Or worse, reports surfaced that even service animals were not permitted into shelters by law enforcement. Although service animals are usually exempt from pet policies and protected by regulations set forth under the Americans with Disabilities Act, “it cannot be denied that many poor people [died] as a result of ‘no pets’ policies.”[15]

Since PETS was passed in 2006, more than 30 states have adopted plans that address the orderly evacuation of animals as a result of natural disasters.[16] Local communities are also assisting with animal rescue assistance. Currently, “the Kentucky Humane Society is waiving adoption fees for pets that came from hurricane zones.”[17] However, local pet shelters must be cognizant of potential litigation. Back in 2006, cases were litigated after seemingly abandoned pets were adopted following Hurricane Katrina.[18] The original owners of the pets, however, filed suit against the adoptive owners, claiming that the animal shelters mistakenly and unrightfully transferred possession of the displaced pets to the new owners.[19]

Hurricane Irma is leaving behind it its own threats of litigation, but this time against the pet owners. During the final hours of evacuation and rescue attempts before Irma hit West Palm Beach, Florida, animal control officers rescued more than 50 dogs and cats. Sadly, these animals were not only abandoned by their pet owners, but some of the animals were left in ill-equipped cages or worse, tethered to a tree to wait out the storm.[20] Such actions were not only extremely dangerous, but may result in animal cruelty charges against the owners.[21]  

Also, what about the animals who cannot evacuate in the arms of their pet owners? Farm animals, for example, are not only extremely cumbersome to evacuate, they are also not protected under PETS.[22] Another example is wild animals, who present a completely different evacuation obstacle. Last week, as Hurricane Irma barreled towards the state of Florida, employees and the wildlife at the Miami Zoo “bunkered down” as they prepared to endure the storm.[23] In their decision to wait it out, several factors were taken into consideration. First and foremost, as natural disasters, specifically hurricanes, are unpredictable and rapidly changing, it requires significantly more work than may actually be necessary to relocate the zoo animals, especially if the path of the hurricane changes.[24] Ultimately, that leads to the second consideration, which is the potential effect of the relocation on the animal. In the past, evacuating wildlife resulted in the death of some of the animals.[25] As such, during Hurricane Irma, the Miami Zoo chose to scale down its staff and amp up the provisions with back-up, back-up supplies for the animals.[26] As a result of this well-learned lesson, zoos seem to be one of the most adaptable protectors of animals, learning from previous storms and persistently modifying their systematic order of safeguarding animals during natural disasters.

It has been said that “[w]hile [Hurricane] Katrina showed a failure to build, [Hurricane] Harvey might come to represent a warning about climate change.”[27] However, what is most important is that we cannot just wait around for the next natural disaster to teach us another lesson. Instead, no matter who you are or whether you are a dog, cat, different-kind-of-pet, or non-pet person, we should all be the arms of an angel and help out our fellow man, as well as man’s best friend.





[1] Shaila Dewan & John Schwartz, How Does Harvey Compare With Hurricane Katrina? Here’s What We Know, N.Y. Times (Aug. 28, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/28/us/hurricane-katrina-harvey.html?mcubz=0.

[2] Ali Berman, Hurricane Katrina prompted a shift in pet rights, Mother Nature Network (Aug. 19, 2015, 12:24 PM), https://www.mnn.com/family/pets/stories/why-hurricane-katrina-was-shift-pets-rights.

[3] Sad story of little boy and his dog grips U.S., NBCNews.com (Sept. 6, 2005, 2:43 PM), http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9223167/ns/health-pet_health/t/sad-story-little-boy-his-dog-grips-us/#.Wb0kyK3Myt9.

[4] Berman, supra note 2.

[5] Gina Pace, House Passes Pet Evacuation Bill, CBSNews.com (May 22, 2006, 8:04 PM), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/house-passes-pet-evacuation-bill/.

[6] President Bush Signs H.R. 3858, the “Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006”, The White House (Oct. 6, 2006), https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2006/10/20061006-15.html.

[7] Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. § 5121.1-101 (2016).

[8] Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006, Pub. L. No. 109-308 § 2, 120 Stat. 1725 (2006).

[9] Berman, supra note 2.

[10] Kim LaCapria, Are Hotels Required to Accept Pets During Natural Disasters?, Snopes (Sept. 7, 2017), http://www.snopes.com/fema-pets/.

[11] Id.

[12] Karen Dawn, Best Friends Need Shelter, Too, Wash. Post (Sept. 10, 2005), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/09/AR2005090901824.html/.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. See also, LaCapria, supra note 10.

[16] Cynthia Hodges, State Emergency Planning Laws for Animals, Mich. St. U. (2011), https://www.animallaw.info/intro/state-and-federal-disaster-planning-laws-and-pets.

[17] Taylor M. Riley, Now you can rescue a hurricane pet for FREE at the Kentucky Human Society, Courier J. (Sept. 13, 2017, 10:56 PM), http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2017/09/13/adopt-hurricane-pet-free-kentucky-humane-society/661076001/.

[18] Hodges, supra note 14. See also Augillard v. Madura, 257 S.W.3d 494 (Tex. App. 2008), and Arguello v. Behmke, 2006 WL 205097 (N.J. Super. Ct. Ch. Div. Jan. 26, 2006).

[19] Hodges, supra note 14.

[20] Merris Badcock, More than 50 Animals found tethered to tress in Florida county as Irma approaches, ABC Action News (Sept. 9, 2017, 3:48 PM), http://www.abcactionnews.com/weather/hurricane/more-than-50-animals-were-found-tethered-to-trees-in-palm-beach-county-as-irma-approaches.

[21] Id.

[22] Berman, supra note 2.

[23] Danny Nett, Flamingos In The Men’s Room: How Zoos And Aquariums Handle Hurricanes, NPR (Sept. 7, 2017, 7:02 AM), http://www.npr.org/2017/09/07/548981618/flamingos-in-the-men-s-room-how-zoos-and-aquariums-handle-hurricanes.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Dewan & Schwartz, supra note 1.