Pawprints of Katrina: Pets Saved and Lessons Learned

By: Cathy Scott

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Hurricane Katrina was a tragedy of epic proportions, but it wasn't just humans who were affected. This massive storm, plus the resulting flood, created an animal welfare crisis the likes of which we've never seen before in America. An estimated 100,000 to 250,000 companion animals were displaced, and the response of human rescuers only added to the problem. Most pet owners wanted to take their furry, feathered, and scaled friends with them when they evacuated, but they were told by those in charge of the rescue efforts that they weren't allowed to. Some were even forced at gunpoint to leave their pets behind. As a result many animals died, but of those who did live, about 20,000 were saved by various animal welfare organizations.

Pawprints of Katrina specifically chronicles the efforts of volunteers from Best Friends Animal Society and others who partnered with them, who had a presence on the ground near New Orleans for nine months following the storm. Through their bravery and compassion, thousands of animals were reunited with their families or were able to be adopted out into loving forever homes. Best Friends, along with other animal welfare groups, were also able to help enact legislation that will prevent such chaos from ever happening again with any future natural disasters. Through its stories of individual pets and the volunteers who saved them, this book celebrates the intrepid hearts and spirits of both the animals and their rescuers.


Pawprints of Katrina documents the massive animal rescue effort that went on for months following Hurricane Katrina. It was quite possibly the largest animal rescue in history and a highly unusual and challenging situation. This is because few pet owners were allowed to take their furry friends with them when they evacuated. Some tried to stay behind to save their pets, but eventually they were forced to evacuate, some even at gunpoint, while others were more gently coerced with false promises that their pets would be taken care of, if only they would leave with their rescuers. It's estimated that between 100,000 and 250,000 pets were left behind. Many animals died as a result, due to flood waters and other factors, while those who survived were left to fend for themselves in locked homes, garages, or storage sheds. Others who were left free or managed to escape roamed the deserted, disaster-ravaged streets of New Orleans, some for months, until rescuers were able to get to them.

Journalist Cathy Scott came to New Orleans at the behest of Best Friends Animal Society, one of the largest and most organized pet rescue groups to bring volunteers to the area. They wanted her to document their efforts via articles on their website, but she ended up staying and helping with the rescues as well. Best Friends stayed in the area nine long months, several months longer than most other rescue groups who weren't local. Pawprints of Katrina is primarily about the rescue stories of Best Friends volunteers, but also included are many other organizations that partnered with them in these efforts, most notably St. Francis Animal Sanctuary, near Tylertown, Mississippi. They loaned their grounds to Best Friends for the duration and became the site of Camp Tylertown, the huge base camp for volunteers and animals alike. It was the primary location where animals were triaged, given medical care if needed, housed, fed, distributed out to temporary foster homes, and meticulously documented in hopes of eventually reuniting them with their original owners. Overall, it's estimated that all animal rescues combined were able to save about 20,000 pets, for which Best Friends was responsible for about half, but sadly, despite Best Friends' diligence, only about 15% of the animals' original owners were ever found. This may be because many of the owners themselves were killed in the storm and the resulting flood, while those who weren't had nothing to return to and may have felt it best to leave their pets with rescuers.

Pawprints of Katrina was an excellent and engaging read that delves into specific cases, giving detailed accounts of individual animals from how they ended up in their circumstances to their happy ending. The author also takes a look at some of the rescuers themselves, volunteers who left jobs and lives behind and traveled long distances to be a part of this extraordinary effort. It's not just dogs and cats who were rescued either; there was also an odd assortment of other animals - a squirrel, pigs, an iguana, a goose, an emu, and even several tarantulas, to name a few - who benefited from the volunteers' selflessness. Not all the stories are happy ones. Many of the volunteers who went in search of animals found only dead bodies, and then there was the heartbreaking story of sheriff's deputies who promised to care for dozens of pets owners were forced to leave behind but who allegedly brutally shot them promptly upon their owners' departures. The great thing to come out of all this, though, is that with the help of Best Friends and other animal welfare organizations, national legislation stating that companion animals must be included in any future disaster evacuations was passed and signed into law by President Bush. Now animals won't have to be left behind to suffer in such huge numbers ever again.

By turns heartbreaking and heartwarming, Pawprints of Katrina captures the indomitable spirit of both the rescuers and the rescued. It covers this epic tragedy with a combination of compassion and insight, right from the front lines of the rescue efforts. As I read it, I cried tears of happiness for the animals who were either reunited with their people or found new lives in other loving homes, and I cried tears of sadness for the animals who tried to hang on but didn't make it and for all the lives that were senselessly lost due to poor planning, unfair evacuation standards, or outright cruelty. I've had this book on my TBR list for quite some time, and chose to pick it up now as research material for the next book I'm planning to write. It was more than worth the read and gave me some great insights into rescuing animals following a natural disaster, while also tugging on my heartstrings. Overall, it was a wonderful book that I highly recommend to animal lovers like myself who might want to learn more about the animal rescue efforts in the weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina or for anyone who might just be looking for a great animal-related read.


Cathy Scott