FEMA's Efforts to Help Pets Draw Criticism

The Federal Emergency Management Agency dispatched veterinary teams to tend to animals in New Orleans. But some veterinarians say FEMA was more a hindrance than a help in taking care of the animals.

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Hurricane Katrina has also been a disaster for many animals. Under a program sponsored by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, veterinary teams from around the country tended to animals' wounds, gave them food and water, vaccinated them against rabies and tried to reunite them with their owners or send them off to shelters for possible adoption. Now that the immediate crisis has passed, some veterinarians say FEMA was more a hindrance than a help in carrying out that mission. NPR's Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX reporting:

Dr. Terry Kane is a member of a federal veterinary medical assistance team or VMAT. She spent the last two weeks at the New Orleans airport administering to traumatized dogs, cats, birds and even the occasional iguana. Kane is a private vet in Cincinnati when she's not doing disaster work. Over and over, Kane was impressed with the fierce bond between people and their pets. She recalls two frail elderly women--sisters--who both needed medical attention. One of them had a little dog concealed under her blanket.

Dr. TERRY KANE (Veterinarian): She says, `Honey, I told them I am not leaving without Bumbum(ph). I either die here with Bumbum or they take Bumbum with me,' and...

Unidentified Woman: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. KANE: ...Bumbum was this little elderly senior citizen dog and there was no way.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Dr. KANE: And she was with her sister and they would finish each other's sentences.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Dr. KANE: And she said, `That's right,' and they were on a stretcher here for days, but that dog kept them going.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

KNOX: Many people think it's just a nice thing to rescue dogs and kitties, Kane says. They don't understand the implications of asking people to abandon their pets.

Dr. KANE: People consider their pets to be their family, and they jeopardize their safety and they jeopardize the rescuers' safety by not being evacuated with their pets. So don't get me wrong. I--you know, saving the people is number one, but oftentimes the people won't be saved unless they take their pet family with them.

KNOX: Many vets who answered the government's call after Katrina say FEMA managers also don't understand why veterinary work is important. More than three weeks after the hurricane struck, with thousands of animals still clogging emergency shelters in Louisiana, FEMA hasn't provided basic veterinary equipment and supplies to its teams there.

Dr. BARRY KELLOGG (Veterinarian): And there were things that came though; however, they were not necessarily the basic goods that we needed. Federal part of it has just not worked.

KNOX: Dr. Barry Kellogg is a Florida vet who led FEMA's animal rescue teams in Louisiana for most of Katrina's aftermath. Kellogg says FEMA didn't supply things like IV fluids, medicines, bandages, cages, carriers so people could take their pets with them when they evacuated on helicopters and planes. Kellogg also says FEMA didn't supply equipment--rubber gloves, boots and coveralls--to protect rescue workers as they washed down animals soaked in dirty floodwaters.

Dr. KELLOGG: I sent an order off the second day for those materials and it was--a week and a half later found that it never went anyplace and was never signed off. That's deplorable; that's terrible.

KNOX: But FEMA rules say its veterinary first responders may not bring their own equipment and supplies or accept private donations. We asked FEMA to talk about supply issues. The agency designated Dr. Mark Lloyd to respond. He's not a full-time FEMA employee, like Kellogg and 220 other veterinary responders. He takes time off from his own job when the government deploys the teams. Lloyd seemed uncomfortable speaking for FEMA. He acknowledged that team members or responders have been ignoring FEMA's rules to get what the animals need.

Dr. MARK LLOYD (FEMA): The responders, although they have no desire to break the law or do anything, you know, that they're not supposed to--these individuals do their job and they find a way to do it. They're not looters, but we certainly will take advantage of anything that we can to do our job in an ethical manner.

KNOX: That means accepting forbidden donations, he says. Team members have also freely violated the rule that says they can't use their own money to buy what they need. Asked why FEMA couldn't provide what the veterinary rescuers need, Lloyd said, `I'm afraid that I really couldn't answer that question.' Richard Knox, NPR News.

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