Pet Rescue: the networks that save cats and dogs from hurricanes

The mass migration of cats and dogs out of Texas began even before Harvey struck.

The Humane Society of the United States, anticipating a deluge of lost and abandoned animals after the recent natural disaster, began coordinating flights of animals already in Texas shelters to other parts of the country. Eventually, they moved hundreds of adoptable cats and dogs in the days before and after the storm. The same thing happened with Irma in Florida and the Virgin Islands. The same thing happens after Maria in Puerto Rico.

“I can’t remember a time when I had to work on back-to-back disasters like this,” says Wanda Merling, assistant director of operations for the Animal Cruelty, Rescue and Recovery team. intervention of the Humane Society. “Today marks day 37 with no day off,” she told me on Tuesday.

The recent pace of work has been unusual, but the type of work is not. Whether through formal networks like the Humane Society’s Emergency Placement Partners or through informal relationships between shelters, rescued animals often move across the country before they find homes.

The Humane Society moved the dogs from this British Virgin Islands shelter, damaged by Irma, to Maryland. (Frank Loftus/Humane Society International)
A dog at a shelter in the British Virgin Islands (Frank Loftus/Humane Society International)

Outside of times of disaster, this generally drives animals from rural areas, where there are many animals and few people, to cities where there are fewer animals and many more people. Supply and demand are even more uneven after a disaster: shelters are flooded with lost or abandoned animals, while people who have recently lost their homes in the area are unlikely to adopt. Thus, in the event of an emergency, the logistics become more complicated. For Irma, for example, the Humane Society gutted a shelter in South Carolina just to use it as a hub for animals rescued from Florida.

After relocating the first wave of animals that were already in shelters, next come those who are lost and abandoned after a disaster. As in many areas of disaster response, Katrina provided lessons in what not to do in 2005. Emergency shelters at the time refused pets, in some cases forcing owners to abandon them. A single spare paragraph from an Associated Press dispatch during the evacuation of the Louisiana Superdome captured the chaos and distress of it all:

At the end of the line, people huddled against police barricades in the rain. The refugees fainted and had to be carried hand in hand over the heads of the doctors. Pets were not allowed on the bus, and when a police officer confiscated a little boy’s dog, the child cried until he threw up. “Snowball, snowball,” he shouted.

Soon people from all over the country were helping to search for Snowball. Dedicated websites are emerging. Strangers offered rewards for information. The story of Snowball and other abandoned Katrina pets inspired Congress to pass the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act in 2006, which required rescuers to house pets and service animals. During Harvey, the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston did indeed allow people to bring their pets.

“Among the many things people have learned [from Katrina], the first is that people do not want to leave their pets. And if they do, it’s very traumatic for people and pets. And they want them back,” says Colleen Learch, counselor for the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation in Virginia, which takes in animals from recent hurricanes. After Katrina, stories emerged of people who recently adopted pets from Louisiana clashing with previous owners who wanted them back. (Perhaps most infamously, Pam Bondi, who later became Florida’s attorney general, settled a lawsuit with a family after they adopted their St. Bernard.) Merling says local shelters are trying to keep the cats and dogs for 30 days, but this may simply not be possible if shelters become overcrowded.

The Humane Society tried other models, such as fostering rather than adopting pets after Hurricane Sandy. After Harvey, the organization also moved the dogs from a crowded Rockport shelter to Houston and announced the move online. Several dogs and their families have since been reunited.

In Puerto Rico, where the situation after Maria was incredibly dire, the response for pets was also slower. “Puerto Rico is going to be a long project,” Merling says.

The Humane Society was unable to evacuate animals from shelters on the island before the hurricane, in part because they did not have all the necessary health documents on hand. Now that the road to the local Puerto Rican airport has finally been cleared, the organization will take off its first plane full of animals this Friday to New Jersey. The Puerto Rico shelter currently housing the animals has flooded the first floor and is running out of food.

Learch anticipates that his foundation, which has also worked closely with Puerto Rican partners in the past, will house animals for several months. After so many back-to-back hurricanes, there is an opportune time: fall is a very popular season for adoption.

A dog evacuated from the British Virgin Islands on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport in Virginia (Kevin Wolf/AP Images for HSI)
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