There was a massive effort to move cats and dogs out of Texas before hurricane Harvey even hit the area. The Humane Society was familiar with what happens to dogs and cats after natural disasters and they were already anticipating the loss and abandonment of pets after Harvey, so in an effort to prevent the situation again, they began scheduling flights of animals that were already in Texas animal shelters, to other parts of the U.S. Over time, they were able to relocate hundreds of dogs and cats that were adoptable pets, just days before the storm hit. Since Harvey, other hurricanes have prompted the same efforts, including with Irma in Florida and the Virgin Islands, as well as with hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Wanda Merling, the deputy director of operations for the Humane Society’s Animal Cruelty and Response Team, has said that she can’t remember a time where there were back-to-back natural disasters to hit the way these hurricanes have. She went on to say that she was on day number 37, of no days off. Although the amount of work she has been doing is on the unusual side, this type of work is not unusual for her. She deals with both formal, like the Humane Society’s emergency-placement partners, and non-formal networks, such as different shelters, to move animals about the country to find them new homes.
During non-disaster times, she works with situations of driving animals that live in rural areas, where there are more animals than people, to cities where there are more people and fewer animals. Merling says that during times of natural disasters, the numbers of people to animals is even more off balance and animals shelters become so full from lost and abandoned animals, they can’t cope and it becomes a dire situation.
In the case of hurricane Irma, for instance, the Humane Society cleared out a South Carolina shelter strictly for the reason of housing abandoned and lost animals that were affected by that disaster in Florida.
Once the first go-round of relocating the sheltered animals takes place, the second go-round of dealing with all the lost and abandoned animals that turn up, begins. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a lesson hurricane and taught shelters and animal rescue organizations, what not to do. At the time of Katrina, emergency shelters actually turned pets away which in some instances, it forced their owners to have to abandon them. One paragraph taken from the Associated Press dispatch in the middle of the Louisiana Superdome evacuation, was able to capture all of the distress and chaos that was caused by it tall. Here’s what it said:
At the back end of the line, people jammed against police barricades in the rain. Refugees passed out and had to be lifted hand-over-hand overhead to medics. Pets were not allowed on the bus, and when a police officer confiscated a little boy’s dog, the child cried until he vomited. “Snowball, Snowball,” he cried.
Before long, people from all of the U.S. were helping in the search for Snowball. Websites were set up in an effort to find Snowball and rewards were offered by strangers. It was Snowball’s story that inspired congress to pass a new law, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, in 2006. The new law required rescuers to make room and accommodate pets as well as service animals. This new law drove the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, TX allowed people to bring their pets with them during hurricane Harvey.
One thing people have learned from Katrina was that people do not want to leave their pets behind. It is extremely traumatic for pet owners to have to abandon their pets, but they had no choice sometimes. If they did abandon them, they most definitely wanted them back, says the advisor for the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation in Virginia, who was taking in pets during recent hurricanes. Stories about people adopting pets after hurricane Katrina that really belonged to someone else who wanted their pet back, began to emerge. One of the most infamous stories was that of Pam Bondi who later became the attorney general for Florida, was involved with a lawsuit that was settled, after adopting a St. Bernard. According to Merling, most local shelters do try to hold onto dogs and cats for 30 days, but there are times it can become impossible to do that due to overcrowding.
Other avenue have been tried, too, such as fostering pets after hurricanes rather than adopting. After hurricane Harvey, a lot of dogs had to be relocated from one overcrowded shelter in Rockport, to Houston. The relocation was advertised online to make people aware, and this helped to reunite many pets with their owners.
Maria, in Puerto Rico, has been a dire situation for people, and for pets, it has been even slower for response. Merling says that this will be a very long project.
Unfortunately, the Humane Society wasn’t able to get animals evacuated in time, off the Island, before the storm hit. A part of the reason was that many animals did not have the necessary health paperwork to be evacuated. Now that the road to get to local Puerto Rico has been cleared, they will be able to get their first plane full of animals off the island and they’re going to New Jersey. They are glad, because the Puerto Rico shelter that has currently been housing many animals, was flooded by the storm and they are now low on pet food.
One organization has said that they will be taking in animals for many months in the future, but there is a positive now, and that is that it’s fall now, and fall is a busy and popular pet adoption time of year.