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Pet evacuation bill awaits final approval
Washington - Legislation that ties federal grants to including pets in local and state evacuation plans hinges on last-minute negotiations between Congress' two chambers.
WASHINGTON — Legislation that ties federal grants to including pets in local and state evacuation plans hinges on last-minute negotiations between Congress' two chambers.
By insider accounts, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS Act) sits on the brink of passing. In August, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a Senate substitute to HR 3858, just before adjourning for a month's recess. The House overwhelmingly approved the bill, minus a Senate amendment, in May.
Left behind: Many animals lost during Hurricane Katrina were taken to the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center near Gonzales, La., where veterinarians cared for them.
The bills stem from the nation's focus on the plight of animals following last year's hurricanes, which displaced an estimated 1.1 million people and roughly 250,000 of their pets. Red Cross shelters do not allow animals, and evacuation efforts were criticized when many residents refused to leave without their pets.
"This is one of our highest priorities," says Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the American Veterinary Medical Association's Governmental Relations Division in Washington. "(American Kennel Club) and some of the other groups in town are trying to get the bill moving."
Yet the legislation, lobbied by animal advocacy groups as well as AVMA, faces an uphill battle as Congress readies to take off next month for election season. There's barely time to get a joint act to the White House, proponents say, especially when vital appropriation measures still hang in the balance.
The quickest way to push the measure through is to send the Senate's version to the desk of the House floor, which can be voted on by suspending the rules. The system leaves no room for debate and a two-thirds majority vote is required for passage.
But the suspension is unlikely because the bills are dissimilar, Lutschaunig says. He predicts the measures will be hashed out in a slower conference committee, which assembles members from both chambers to create a single document for the president's signature.
That leaves a lot of work to be done, Lutschaunig contends. The House's PETS Act is a one-liner, amending the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to include consideration of people with pets and service animals before disaster strikes. By contrast, the Senate's version is more comprehensive and gets the government directly involved. Senate Bill 2548 grants the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authority to assist in developing evacuation plans, authorizes financial aid to states to create pet-friendly emergency shelters and allows for a provision of essential assistance for those with household pets and service animals in disasters.
Most groups favor the Senate's version. The American Kennel Club and United Animal Nations laud the measure. Leaders with Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which embarked on a national advertising campaign for the bill, say animal welfare legislation often languishes. Yet this bill is boosted by Hurricane Katrina's one-year anniversary, HSUS President Wayne Pacelle says. "This is an important step to make sure Americans will not have to choose between being rescued and saving their pets," he says.