HOW SHE SEES IT Evacuation plans must include animals

In the midst of the almost incomprehensible tragedy that has emerged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina comes one story that has touched the hearts of many -- that of a little boy who became so distraught, he cried until he vomited when his dog, Snowball, was taken away from him as he boarded an evacuation bus.
For people around the country, this story distilled down to its essence the heartbreak, helplessness and loss suffered by so many of Katrina's victims. Many people have responded by donating to a reward fund for information about the boy and his dog, in an effort to reunite them. At the time of this writing, Snowball is believed to have been located, but there is no word yet on the little boy who so desperately misses -- and needs -- his canine companion.
This is just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of heart-wrenching stories of evacuees being forced to make awful choices between saving their own lives and those of their beloved animal companions. More than a week after the hurricane struck, thousands of people were still holed up in their homes in the worst-hit areas of New Orleans, refusing to evacuate -- and many said it was because authorities would not let them bring their animals. Others smuggled animals out in bags or inside their clothing. Some courageous souls have selflessly stayed put so that they could care for stray and abandoned animals. Others have only agreed to be evacuated after authorities relented and let them bring along their four-legged friends.
Members of the family
This tragedy, like no other, has brought home the desperate need for animals to be included in disaster planning. Federal and nonprofit agencies need to acknowledge the fact that animals are considered by many people to be members of the family. They would no sooner intentionally leave their dog or cat than they would abandon a defenseless child or elderly parent. Agencies must cooperate with each other and formulate a plan that provides shelter for evacuees' animals, so that people fleeing disasters don't have the added burden of worrying about the fate of their animal companions.
This tragedy has also brought into sharp focus the dangers faced by animals left behind when their guardians evacuate. People who share their homes with animals should never, ever, leave animals behind -- you never know when you'll be able to return to your home, or if or when humane agencies will be allowed to rescue your animals, on the odd chance they survive the storm. If you have the means to evacuate, your animals are safest with you, even if you have to camp out in your car or in a tent.
Of course, many of the people affected by Katrina were unable to evacuate because they had no cars or money. Many are elderly or disabled. These people already have enough obstacles to face when disaster strikes, without being bullied into abandoning their animals, sometimes their only source of comfort when they have lost everything else.
X Rue McClanahan, a television, stage and screen star, is honorary director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

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