Ten days ago I wrote a column ("The Truth About Cats and Dogs") making the simple, commonsensical point that rescuing people ought to take precedence over rescuing pets after natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Following this logic—which in itself proved controversial to many readers—I argued that the policeman who famously separated a little boy from his beloved dog Snowball before the little boy could climb aboard a bus taking him out of New Orleans had demonstrated good judgment. Herding a mob of refugees is difficult enough. To add on the duty to herd dogs, cats, hamsters, boa constrictors, llamas, and God knows what else—all of them barking and hissing and biting one another, and perhaps biting or inducing allergic reactions in the people forced into close quarters with them—would make a difficult job well-nigh impossible.
This is not, apparently, a popular view, at least among the sort of people inclined to send e-mails to this column. The hate mail is still pouring in. It was impossible to read them all, but many of the e-mails didn't even pretend to offer a coherent contrary argument. They merely hurled obscenities my way and branded me a heartless monster. I came away from the experience wondering whether the American public found it easier to feel sympathy for dogs and cats than for low-income black people. I'm not sure I want to know the answer.
What I can state with some confidence is that one man's drowning cockapoo is another man's photo op. Three members of Congress from whom I'm accustomed to expect better—Reps. Tom Lantos, D-Calif; Barney Frank, D-Mass.; and Christopher Shays, R-Conn.—today introduced the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2005, which requires the following:
STANDARDS FOR STATE AND LOCAL EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS OPERATIONAL PLANS.—in approving standards for State and local emergency preparedness operational plans … the Director shall ensure that such plans take into account the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals following a major disaster or emergency.
The phrase "individuals with" is superfluous, and perhaps an attempt to avoid even more savage mockery than this bill is likely to generate. In plain English, the bill forbids the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make any grants to states or cities that haven't got a plan to rescue household pets. Congress could still appropriate money to said states or cities, and this wouldn't affect money spent after a disaster occurs. But the money FEMA hands out to boost disaster preparedness would be withheld if a given state or city lacked a game plan for rescuing anything a particular individual might choose to call a household pet—pit bull, snakehead, Gaboon viper, whatever. Presumably some local governments would try to exempt poisonous or otherwise dangerous animals, and presumably animal-rights groups would immediately file lawsuits arguing that the statutory language didn't allow for exemptions, or that the exemptions were "too broadly worded."
"Obviously, there's room for making fun of this initiative," Lynne Weil, a spokeswoman for Lantos, conceded when I spoke to her. Weil emphasized that the bill grants maximum flexibility as to how the animals should be rescued, and she added that there was "no cost involved in this bill." By that, of course, she meant no cost to the federal government. Presumably states and cities would have to spend money, if only on man-hours, in order to comply with the law. I have my doubts, though, as to whether the bill will ever become law. As far as its sponsors are concerned, it has probably served its intended purpose already: to generate a little favorable publicity while Hurricanes Katrina and Rita still dominate Page One.
[Update, Sept. 23: I neglected to mention yesterday that Don Young (R-Alaska) and James Oberstar (D-Minn.) are also cosponsors of the bill, though I can't say as wholeheartedly as with Lantos, Frank, and Shays that I usually expect better from them.]