Best Friends Blog

Katrina: How the no-kill philosophy came to disaster response

Hurricane Katrina blew the doors off the nation’s disaster response establishment. The damage wrought by the storm and the subsequent breaking of the levees in the greater New Orleans area caused one of the worst disasters in recorded U.S. history. Certainly, it was the first to be covered by the 24-hour cycle of cable news.

This was especially true for the animal rescue component of the disaster. Historically, the protocol for such a disaster was that the governor’s office invited national animal organizations into a state through the office of the state veterinarian. The rescue organizations then worked locally with municipal animal control until the local agency asked them to leave, or the state vet declared the emergency ended. At that point, the national animal rescue and sheltering organizations would obediently strike their tents and leave, turning custody of the disaster-affected animals in their care back to local animal control agencies, who would hold them for return to their owners or adoption or, a more likely scenario, would eventually have them killed.

Compounding the problem was the fact that, surprisingly, there were no official plans to manage people’s pets in the face of a devastating event like Katrina. As a result, human emergency shelters absolutely refused entry to pets brought along by people who had evacuated on their own.

Hurricane Katrina was the first natural disaster in which Best Friends Animal Society was a major player. However, our allegiance was not to a state or local agency. It was to the animals. Best Friends was the first national organization on the ground, thanks to our connection at the time with Bert Smith, director of animal control for Jefferson Parish, who had transported animals from his most damaged shelter to the inland fairgrounds at Franklinton, Louisiana.

Best Friends relieved Bert’s team at Franklinton on August 30, one day after the storm blew through. We put in a small team to care for the animals there, and then began field work that included land and water rescue of animals from the neighborhoods of Jefferson and Orleans parishes.

Thanks to the generosity of Pam Perez, founder of St. Francis Animal Sanctuary in Tylertown, Mississippi, we were able to establish an emergency rescue shelter there, and for the next nine months, Best Friends staff and volunteers cared for and rehabilitated thousands of dogs, cats and exotic pets, the latter ranging from iguanas and pythons to fish, ferrets and turtles.

In addition to being the first rescue group on the ground, Best Friends was the last one to leave. When the other national organizations pulled up stakes on the order of the state veterinarian in mid-October, we held our ground, continued to rescue animals, and took responsibility for many of the volunteers left behind by departing organizations.

We did this not for the sake of defiance. We did it because the no-kill principles that have always guided our work would not allow us to return animal disaster victims to overwhelmed agencies, where they would face almost certain death. And to the chagrin of the establishment, hundreds of individual rescuers and smaller rescue organizations kept working as well — each motivated by a commitment to no-kill principles. Ethics had trumped administrative tidiness.

In December of 2005, we opened a second emergency shelter at an abandoned food and entertainment complex in Metairie, Louisiana. We called it Celebration Station, and it served as a barracks not only for animals, but also for a squadron of humane animal trappers. Trapping was necessary because by that point, many of the dogs and cats who remained at large throughout the New Orleans area had gone into hiding, including many puppies and kittens born following the storm.

Katrina brought to light many of the weaknesses in the existing system for dealing with animals after a disaster. Eventually, Congress got into the act and passed the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which linked a local county’s eligibility for FEMA disaster funding to the requirement that an evacuation plan be in place for local residents who want to be evacuated with their pets. This was a first, and it has ensured that the type of wholesale abandonment of pets that we saw during Katrina won’t happen again.

While all of us at Best Friends were deeply saddened and even traumatized by what transpired in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we were and continue to be proud of the commitment demonstrated by our staff and volunteers, as well as the unflagging support of our members and friends.

As with all of our work, we were driven by a belief in the intrinsic value of the life of every homeless pet. Our skills in handling and caring for animals, honed for 20 years at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, served us well during Katrina, and these skills continue to be the centerline of all the work that we do across the country.

Katrina provided many lessons and life-changing experiences that we will highlight periodically in this blog between now and September. For those of you reading this who volunteered with us or another organization in the wake of the storm, our hats are off to you.

However, the scale of the disaster that continues in our nation’s shelters (more than 9,000 animals killed every day) dwarfs the scale of the disaster that Hurricane Katrina proved to be for the animals of the Gulf Coast. It’s a perspective that keeps us mindful of the task before us, and a reminder that only together can we Save Them All.

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Gregory Castle
Best Friends Animal Society

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  • Jane B Brewster

    I was there for much of the time, both in Tylertown and C-Station, first as a volunteer and then as a BFAS employee. I look forward to reading subsequent blog posts and hope they will delve deeper into what actually happened, naming names and detailing how everyone involved made a difference. (BTW – we didn’t “call it Celebration Station”, it was already called that as a business prior to Katrina; we called it C-Station when BFAS was there after the storm)

    • jondunn

      Hi Jane,

      There certainly will be more posts as we lead up to the actual 10th anniversary in August. Not just here on the blog, but also on our website, and in the Best Friends Magazine. We will also be honoring the anniversary, and everyone who took part at this year’s Best Friends Conference.


  • NY Animal Rescuer

    I was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Best Friends had a temperature controlled tractor trailer waiting each night for the animals that were found 7 weeks after the disaster. They were amazing in the support that they gave to every rescuer that was down there still finding animals alive.

  • diane giese

    I adopted my soul mate….a beat up mastiff lab who was about 10….who was a Katrina rescue and was processed through Tylertown. He was the most wonderful friend for almost 4 years and I miss him every day. He was also my introduction to Best Friends. He even got to visit there from NH in 2008. I will forever be grateful for your work there and for saving my darling.

  • Sure It Is

    Paul Magee Berry was the lead architect on this according to your reports post Katrina. His name should have been included in this article.

    • jondunn


      It is indeed true that our former CEO Paul Berry was a key player in Best Friends’ involvement in the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort. We are grateful to Paul for his leadership during that time.

      His name wasn’t included in the post, nor was anyone else’s. Many Best Friends founders, staff and volunteers gave up their lives to this effort – hundreds over the course of the nine long months – and naming just one, or even just a few seemed unfair – which is why the collective “we” was used in the post.

      Thank you,

      Jon Dunn
      Best Friends Animal Society

      • Juliette Watt

        Jon. Paul Berry was not just a key player. He was THE key player. If it wasn’t for Paul, Best Friends would not have been in New Orleans and it would probably not have escalated into the huge organization it has become. No one “lost their lives” but many of us spent a year down there with no where to sleep or stay and worked 24 hrs a day taking in these animals. I have 2 Katrina dogs and they are my family. It is your obligation to do the right thing and mention some very important names. In your reply you thanked You said Bert Smith and Pam Perez, why not include some of the people without which this would not have happened? Sherry Woodard, John Garcia, Ethan Gurney who worked 20 hrs a day as caregivers. Patty Hegwood who opened her clinic and rescued hundreds of dogs. Jeff Popowich , Kelli Harmon who ran our clinic. Jason Watt who procured miracles for us in logistics. Let’s for once be brave and not worry about who we upset. Jon, please let Gregory know these people need to be given the credit they have never really received. This is not the place to be PC – this is the place to do the right thing.

        • Juliette Watt

          These are more of the folk who truly made Best Friends Katrina Rescue what it was. Cathy Scott, Jessica Decker Hand, Michael Hand, Whitney Jones, Ed Fritz, Mckenzie Chamberlain Garcia
          Russ Mead, Mary Lichtenberger, Judah Battista and of course the Founders who also gave up their time and left their lives behind in Kanab to run our rescue. Francis and Silva Battista and Cyrus and Anne Mejia.