CAN A LIBERAL government legitimately protect animal welfare? Despite the ubiquity of animal welfare laws and a broad social consensus in their favor, it is not all that easy to justify them in liberal political theory. For hundreds of years liberal theorists have insisted that the purpose of government is to protect human welfare, and extending that principle to animals—including animals in the liberal “social contract”—poses some challenges.
Those challenges were starkly on display when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast near New Orleans on August 29, 2005. The resulting flood, along with the government’s inadequate response, led to the deaths of thousands and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents. One near-victim was Molly, a Labrador retriever belonging to Denise Okojo. Okojo was blind and suffering from cancer, and Molly had been her guide dog and companion for six years. But when Okojo was airlifted to Lake Charles Memorial Hospital, the coast guard officers told her that no animals were allowed on board. “I screamed and yelled,” she said. But they pulled Molly away from her and left the dog to fend for herself in the rising floodwaters.
Okojo, however, refused to abandon her dog. She told her story to a nurse at the hospital, who contacted the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LSPCA). The LSPCA saved over 8,500 pets during the first two weeks of the flood and helped other organizations save 7,000 more. After hearing about Molly, four volunteers from the LSPCA and ASPCA took a flatboat to Okojo’s New Orleans East neighborhood and started searching. One of the volunteers smashed a window to gain access to the