The Truth About Cats and Dogs

That New Orleans policeman was right to confiscate Snowball.

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The Bush administration got a lot of things horribly wrong in its disaster response to the New Orleans flood, and it deserves almost all of the bitter recriminations hurled its way. But there’s one thing the Bushies and the state of Louisiana got dead right: People matter more than animals.

This may seem an obvious point, but the reluctance of rescue workers to allow refugees from the city to bring their animals with them received thunderous condemnation. Much of the fury arose after Mary Foster of the Associated Press reported the plight of a little boy waiting to board a bus for Houston:

Pets were not allowed on the bus, and when a police officer confiscated a little boy’s dog, the child cried until he vomited. “Snowball, snowball,” he cried.

Who were these barbarians who would put a child in such distress? “Federal and nonprofit agencies need to acknowledge that animals are considered by many people to be members of the family,” fulminated Rue McClanahan, honorary director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in an op-ed published by various Knight-Ridder and Tribune Co. newspapers.

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.

Karen Dawn, proprietor of an animal advocacy Web site, argued in the Washington Post, “The pets pulled from people’s arms would not have taken seats meant for humans.”

There is no reasonable explanation for abandoning them. They were the last vestiges of sweetness, in some cases the only living family, of those who had nothing left. But the police officers were just following orders—orders that reflect an official policy inconsistent with how people feel about their animals.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, complained on Canadian television that “some shelters don’t take [pets], and that is really a major problem.”

But a much greater problem would have arisen had evacuees been encouraged to bring their pets onto rescue boats and buses and into shelters. Knight-Ridder reporters Jack Douglas and Natalie Pompilio reported Sept. 8 that when one New Orleans couple insisted on bringing “our only baby”—a 125-pound potbellied pig named Rooty—the rescue boat nearly sank. Animal-lovers tend to be geniuses at not noticing the calamity animals can bring to a situation already fraught with chaos, but anybody who’s ever seen a live-action Disney film whose plot turns on a dog and cat being housed under the same roof gets the idea. Simply walking my dog Sabrina around the block, I’ve noticed, creates a mild social disturbance. Although Sabrina is very sweet-natured, she strains at the leash to bark at other dogs, and she tries to leap up onto strangers who, in their body language and facial expressions, often communicate very strongly how little they like dogs, which of course is their right.

Multiply Sabrina by five, 12, or 100 dogs (and cats and hamsters and snakes and God knows what else), and you have excrement and earsplitting barking and biting and all sorts of other activity that is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst when you’re trying to solve a human crisis. True, some people apparently refused to be evacuated because they couldn’t bring their pets, and it’s likely at least a few of these people died as a result. But tragic though their fates obviously were, it would have been more tragic, and certainly more unfair, to allow these people to impose further chaos on the appallingly slow and ineffective process by which large numbers of people received aid.

Now that the flight of refugees has largely receded, animal-protection groups are mounting various animal-rescue operations, and that’s laudable. For many of the animals, it’s too late, and that’s sad. Their owners should have evacuated them—and themselves—before the storm hit, when pets could be accommodated more easily. But according to USA Today, Snowball, at least, has been found and will be reunited with ….

Hmm. What is that little boy’s name? Nobody seems to know. It’s entirely consistent with the warped priorities of this sob story that in its telling, the human being’s identity is judged less salient than the pooch’s.