When rescue workers in boats floated to flooded houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, they probably didn’t expect to wrangle a pot-bellied pig named Rudy.
“We wrapped it up in a blanket, dragged it down the stairs,” said Stewart Cook, a first responder and photographer with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, one of the groups that sent workers to Louisiana in the wake of the disaster. Not long before the rescue, the pig’s owner had asked the National Guard to kill the animal, Cook said.
“He couldn’t leave it there to starve,” he said.
Cook was one of a few dozen local, national and international animal rescue workers who on Sunday attended the first day of a weeklong boot camp on rescuing animals during a catastrophe. The event was held at a pond outside of Cabela’s in Gonzales.
Their stories of retrieving thousands of pets, including dogs, cats, lizards, horses, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs and fish in aquariums — sometimes by breaking into abandoned homes — underlined the chaos of post-Katrina rescue efforts and the shortcomings the ordeal exposed in the government’s emergency plans.
Some 10,000 dogs and cats were saved after Katrina, and about 7,500 of them were temporarily housed at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, Dick Green, senior director of disaster response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said Sunday.
But an estimated 250,000 cats and dogs perished or were displaced as a result of the storm and floods, along with an unknown number of other creatures, he said.
Part of that failure was due to a lack of an official emergency plan that included animals.
Many first responders couldn’t accommodate animals, so their owners, who refused to desert the pets, were left stranded on rooftops.
In addition, state and local agencies didn’t have a clear system for communicating with nonprofit animal groups willing to provide aid.
Ten years on, much of that’s changed, said Renee Poirrier, executive director of the Louisiana State Animal Response Team. The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, which calls for agencies seeking FEMA relief to include animals in emergency plans, went into effect in 2006, she said.
Before that, “it was common practice,” she said, for officials to recommend people simply leave food and water for pets and come back later for them — an approach that led to many animal deaths.
Government agencies such as the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, along with animal control centers, have joined with several animal interest groups, including the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, the American Humane Association and others to make sure they’re in step with one another for the next disaster.
Some improvements include having better communication between 911 dispatchers, animal control and animal rescuers, along with a better system of setting up staging areas to temporarily house animals. Experts also suggest residents put together “go-kits” with supplies for taking care of pets for a few days.
On Sunday, first responders trained on how to maneuver boats, hoist animals from the water into crates and balance a vessel carrying heavy items. The trainees used stuffed animals rather than live ones, Poirrier said.
The right equipment wasn’t on hand 10 years ago when Ronnie Engelhard, a Wildlife and Fisheries enforcement agent, saved people and animals using boats after Katrina.
“A human, it’s easy to tell them to stay right here in the boat. An animal, you got to have certain gear to do it, to be able to keep them secure in the boat,” he said.
When dogs hopped in, Engelhard said, he and others would “hang on to them and hope for the best.”
Green, of the ASPCA, said the state has made important strides in preparing for animal rescues in a disaster.
“There is never a reason to leave an animal behind. I just can’t think of a single reason in today’s world why you’d have to, especially in the state of Louisiana. Nobody has spent more time on an evacuation plan than Louisiana,” he said. “Even if you can’t take care of your own, if you don’t have your own transportation, the state of Louisiana still has a plan for that.”
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.