Q: As a flood victim, my grief over not being able to find my dog is slowly being eclipsed by my frustration in dealing with a local animal shelter that seems clueless as to what, if anything, they are required to do by law to help me. Have any of our states or counties enacted post-Katrina legislation that might actually aid reunions of pets and owners following a natural disaster?
A: About two years ago, as a gesture toward addressing the Katrina debacle, Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS), designed, ostensibly, to aid animals affected by natural disasters. Although animal rights groups optimistically heralded the new law as “groundbreaking,” in reality, all PETS did was to admonish FEMA’s director to ensure that state and local emergency preparedness plans “take into account the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals prior to, during and following a major disaster or emergency” in approving plan standards. That’s it—the potential safety of 75 million dogs in our country soundly addressed by 23 words advising an administrator to consider undefined criteria in approving funds to other administrators. The whole thing feels lifted straight out of a Dilbert comic strip.
Cynics may not be too startled, therefore, to learn that the core problem of what to do about dogs and other companion animals lost during a disaster was not solved a whit by PETS. Despite its self-referential acronym, nothing in the act actually detailed a single practical step or the working logistics of evacuating or transporting anyone’s pet anywhere. Implementing the act required only good thoughts, not good deeds. As often happens with hasty and reactive legislation, the act’s words mostly diverted public attention away from rather than toward solving real-world lost dog problems such as you have experienced. Certainly, the unfortunately worded command to “take into account the needs [of pet owners]” exhibits the same air of feebleness that emanated from FEMA itself right after Katrina.
Assuming that a pet owner’s “needs” in a storm’s aftermath are topped by a basic need to actively find the animal, then any post-PETS, FEMA-funded local emergency plan should at the very least fund an animal search-and-rescue squad. FEMA does deploy four Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMATs), made up of veterinarians, pathologists, animal health technicians and microbiologists. Rather than animal rescue, however, their assigned tasks are all epidemiological: assessment of animals’ medical needs and treatment, disease surveillance, public health assessment, technical assistance to assure food and water quality, biological and chemical terrorism surveillance, decontamination, and euthanasia. In short, they are health workers whose focus is addressing crisis-style public health risks—locating pets is not in their repertoire.
Worse, VMAT deployment requires an “invitation” from an affected state only after the state has determined that its local veterinary community is overwhelmed, an invitation which must then be approved by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. These are not easy administrative requirements to fulfill in the brief window of time during which efforts to recover lost dogs are likely to be effective.
Apart from legislation, useful information on the topic is narrow. A quick glance at the jaw-droppingly lame tidbits that FEMA doles out in its public access materials under “Helping Pets Immediately After a Disaster” simply serves to highlight how poorly the federal government has confronted the gritty realities of what qualifies as real assistance. Advice to a panicked owner to “contact your local humane society chapter to locate the shelters or organizations near you” isn’t really worth the pixels required to display it.
One would hope that the political fallout from Katrina would at least have states scrambling to be more effectual in local legislation, but this has not been the case. A good example is Crawford County, Ohio (one of the places hard-hit by recent Midwest flooding, and currently receiving FEMA funds): Its in-place emergency preparedness plan does not even mention animals, much less detail specific resources for those hapless folks who’ve lost them.
One promising avenue is the creation of a national lost-pet database. In 2001, Louisiana formed a commission whose goals included coordinating “a statewide voluntary pet database that will assist animal owners in recovering lost animals.” Though the commission continues to be active, the database itself remains an unfulfilled promise. Private lost-and-found pet network sites such as Pets911.com  and Lostpetdatabase.com , while operative and commendable, have sharp limitations: They rely on voluntary participation; are region-specific; and in practice, will never produce a national solution to a national problem.
Consider my two proposals to bolster the existing framework. The first is vertical: Across the country, we expand the existing VMAT program qualitatively by simply adding “search and rescue” to team task lists, and quantitatively by increasing the number of VMAT teams to 50, one per state. The second is horizontal: Within each state, we build a truly pragmatic lost-pet database by making microchipping mandatory and then linking microchip IDs to the GPS network. Smallish outlays of money plus modest impositions on owners plus large reliance on existing technology could perhaps add up to a reasonable fix.
For the present, stay optimistic that the federal government will eventually step up its program, and be heartened that each state has the independent power to fashion its own remedies. It may be initially disconcerting to realize that a VMAT team isn’t pulling up at your door any time soon, and that even if it did, it would more likely be to take a blood sample from you rather than scour the neighborhood for Captain Adorable. But the incentive is there, and those interested can generate political pressure. Go to fema.gov , click on “Regional Offices,” and call the number listed for either the Regional Coordinator or the SCO (State Coordinating Officer) who acts as the FEMA liaison; ask how your state’s emergency preparedness plan accommodates animals. If you don’t get an answer, express your concerns via a personal letter to the Director of Emergency Management for your state, and copy your local state representative and newspaper on the letter. And please—microchip your pet.