Pet Custody in Focus

Posted on May 7, 2010

Movie explores Hurricane Katrina’s impact on animals and their guardians

When San Francisco filmmaker Geralyn Pezanoski learned how Hurricane Katrina had devastated not just New Orleans and its displaced citizens, but the animals left behind, she organized a volunteer crew to film the efforts of animal rescue teams. “I couldn’t believe the condition of the animals they were pulling out of the flood waters and from destroyed homes,” she says. “I felt like not only did our country completely fail its people, but now we left all these helpless animals to die in an empty city. And these animals were people’s pets — pets they weren’t allowed to evacuate with. It was infuriating.”

86-year old New Orleans resident, Malvin Cavalier, separated from his companion, Bandit, for close to one year after Hurricane KatrinaAfter creating some public service announcements for the Humane Society of Louisiana and adopting Nola, a dog rescued from the disaster, Pezanoski asked herself, “What would I do if someone came forward to claim Nola?” That question led her to produce and direct MINE (, the award-winning 2009 documentary that tells the stories of people whose canine and feline companions had been saved and bonded with new families. “As a result of this unprecedented tragedy, you have thousands of people who have been separated from their companions, and thousands of animal lovers who have rescued, adopted and nurtured these animals back to health,” she says. “All of them are deeply invested and many have differing views about what’s best for the animals. Having witnessed the devastation and spent time with distraught residents as well as having fostered one of these traumatized Malvin Cavalier and his faithful companion, Bandit‘Katrina pets,’ I understood some of the complexities involved in this situation. I empathized with people on both sides of the custody battles, and I felt compelled to tell their stories.”

Even before Katrina, the Animal Legal Defense Fund recognized that pet custody disputes were a growing issue. Today, many divorcing couples are more concerned about who gets the family pet than who drives off with the luxury car. But after a natural disaster, with thousands of companion animals being rescued and potentially adopted out all over the country, legislation that addresses large-scale evacuation becomes critical. One positive result of Katrina was the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS), a 2006 law requiring states to accommodate pets and service animals in their evacuation plans if they want relief assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). While PETS is a step in the right direction, we have yet to see how agencies will implement it in the face of a calamity.

Formerly homeless, Jessie James Pullins is no stranger to hardship, as he struggles to bring his family back together in the years following the devastating losses suffered after Hurricane KatrinaWith no such law to benefit New Orleans residents and their pets in August 2005, rescued animals were scattered across the U.S., leaving people like Jessie Pullins miserable to be separated from his dog J.J. “Jessie’s story was incredibly compelling to me,” says Pezanoski. “He had once been homeless and an addict, and it took many years for him to turn his life around. Raising J.J. from a puppy was instrumental in Jessie’s life. J.J. meant the world to him, and he took his responsibility as J.J.’s guardian very seriously. To hear his regret as he imagined what J.J. must have gone through without him after Katrina and his desire to live out the commitment he had made to J.J. left a deep impression on me.”

A volunteer rescuer holding one of a litter of puppies she just helped rescueIt’s this kind of message that has viewers pondering and animal organizations cheering. “MINE really becomes a powerful tool for animal protection groups in that it reaches mainstream audiences who don’t identify themselves as ‘animal people’ in many cases, and certainly not as animal activists,” Pezanoski explains, adding that she wants her film to be a fundraising tool for animal rescue, welfare and rights organizations. “We’ve already started organizing shelter screenings, using the draw of MINE to make a tangible difference in the lives of animals and to make life a little easier for those who love and protect them.”

With unneutered pets roaming free following Hurricane Katrina, many puppies and kittens were born in a veritable population explosion all over the gulf coast, further compounding the challenges of rescuingPezanoski sees the work being done by ALDF as crucial to the protection of animals in the event of future disasters. “ALDF is a trailblazer in advancing the interests of animals, and I respect their pragmatic approach of working within the current legal system to that end. I think their legitimacy makes them so successful and able to achieve tangible results in bettering the lives of animals. If animals were recognized as sentient beings and afforded basic legal rights, they would have been evacuated along with their people. It’s the work that ALDF does that could prevent another animal tragedy like Katrina from happening.”

Watch the movie trailer
and order the DVD
(Enter the donation code
“ALDF” when you place your order, and $5 from the purcahse of your DVD
will be donated directly back to ALDF.)

Additional pictures
from MINE

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