Rescued puppy Biloxi in Susan Ralston's office in the White House
WHITE House Aide Susan Ralston vividly remembers her strong feelings - and those of her colleagues - as the stories of animal victims of Hurricane Katrina were recounted on their television sets throughout the crisis last year.
From her office in the White House, Ralston helped coordinate the administration's response to the disaster. And like many people, she was worried about all the animals left behind by evacuees.
A strong supporter of the new Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which will ensure that animal victims of future disasters are also evacuated and cared for, Ralston says she completely identified with the families who were torn about what to do with their animals.
‘We would never leave our dogs behind,’ she said. ‘They're absolutely part of our family.’
As a special assistant to President Bush, Ralston has worked primarily for top presidential adviser Karl Rove since the inauguration, coordinating much of the President's travel and events logistics.
While planning his 11th visit to the devastated Gulf Coast region in April, Ralston came face-to-face with an opportunity to help Katrina's animals.
‘Our family always had dogs growing up, and I can't get enough of the 'Dog Whisperer' show,’ said Ralston, who now lives in the Washington area with her husband Troy and two rescued canines, MeMe, a Bull Mastiff and Magnum, a Rottweiler.
With her busy work schedule, the last thing Ralston needed was another dog. But during the president's trip, he was scheduled to visit the Hands on Network volunteer camp in Biloxi, Mississippi and greet volunteers there. When Ralston learned that there were 20 stray puppies living at the camp, she asked for photos and instantly fell in love with a small white and black mixed breed puppy, who she started calling Biloxi. After a few phone calls, Ralston arranged to fly Biloxi and another puppy on board Air Force One when the President returned to Washington.
Despite some reports of whining and crying aboard the jet, the puppies arrived safely at the White House where they were greeted by a throng of staffers, among them Ralston, who had waited anxiously all day for her new puppy to arrive via Presidential motorcade. And Biloxi was put right to work making an appearance at a meeting of Gulf Coast community leaders at the White House that afternoon, bringing smiles (and the sweet smell of puppy breath) to all attendees.
President Bush is, of course, one of the world’s best known dog lovers and couldn't help himself from playing with the puppies at the volunteer camp during his visit, was happy to learn about the stowaways who accompanied him home that day.
‘The President has a very strong bond with Barney,’ commented Ralston. Clearly sharing Ralston's concerns for evacuees with furry family members, Bush was quoted last autumn saying his first priority if he were to evacuate would be to grab his beloved terrier on the way out the door, with Mrs. Bush presumably grabbing the first family's other dog, Miss Beazley.
After a prolonged bout of parvovirus, which is reportedly more common in the Gulf Coast post-Katrina, Biloxi is now enjoying his new home with MeMe and Magnum, and is occasionally able to sneak past the Secret Service to spend time with Ralston in the White House.
‘Biloxi serves as an important daily reminder of the displacement and suffering that so many families are still experiencing after the devastating hurricane,’ Ralston said. ‘After what he's been through, seeing him frolic and play warms my heart.’
The Humane Society of the United States paid tribute to Susan Ralston for her efforts to save Biloxi and to highlight the plight of animal victims of disaster. ‘With the start of hurricane season, we hope the Senate will put the PETS Act on the President's desk soon,’ said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the HSUS, ‘With strong disaster plans for animals in place, puppies like Biloxi won't have to get quite so lucky to survive the storm.’