Houston animal shelters go above and beyond, set standard for disaster response for pets

HOUSTON - While Hurricane Harvey was raging on Aug. 27, Friends For Life received the call to manage the care for animals arriving with evacuees at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

"We were told at that time to expect about 45 animals. In the first 24 hours, we triaged 671, " said Salise Shuttlesworth, Executive Director and Founder of Friends For Life.

They began the monumental task of building a shelter-within-a-shelter.

"So, when you think about what has to happen in order for people to shelter safely with their pets, you basically have to create a second home," said Shuttlesworth.

They collected supplies, offered free veterinary services and registered the animals to make sure they stayed with their families.

"You know those plastic hospital bands? We put a number with the same number on the band on every member of the family and the animal, and the crate that the animal went in," said Shuttlesworth.

Allowing people to shelter with animals during Harvey prevented a lot of chaos and heartache after the storm - a tough lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina. According to Louisiana SPCA, 104,000 pets were left behind to weather Katrina and its aftermath.

An estimated 50-70,000 animals died across the Gulf Coast. Those staggering numbers led to the nationwide "Pet Evacuation Bill," which requires governments on all levels to include companion animals in their evacuation plans.

Friends For Life has written the manual on how to do this safely and successfully, and offers it free of charge to other communities, for when disaster strikes.

"The most interesting request that we had was the monsoon animal response team from Sri Lanka," said Shuttlesworth.

Meanwhile, it was literally raining cats and dogs at the Harris County Animal Shelter.

"We took in over 800 animals and about 478 of those were Harvey-displaced animals," said Dr. Michael White, Director of the Veterinary Public Health Division at Harris County Public Health.

The facility designed to handle about 12,000 animals a year, now handles about 20,000 a year.

"We're always overcrowded."

The shelter partnered with many organizations to ship animals to other facilities to make room for Harvey pets. Best Friends Animal Society's Pet Reunion Pavilion at NRG Arena was home to lots of smiles and tears of joy.

Thanks to the American Kennel Club, Harris County Animal Shelter will be even more equipped for the next disaster, with two pet disaster relief trailers.

"Each trailer contains around 60 cages. They can house dogs that have been displaced and evacuated with their owners," said Tom Pincus of AKC Reunite. "It also has a generator, leashes and a microchip scanner so if the dog is chipped, they can locate the owners."

A beautiful Staffordshire Pitbull Terrier named "Babs" is the only Harvey dog left at Harris County Animal Shelter.

"She just loves everybody," said foster mom Maria Canencio. "I think that's a misconception we have to get through."

Adopting, fostering, donating money, supplies and your time are all ways to make the world a better place for our furry friends.

Helpful links:
Friends For Life: http://www.friends4life.org/
Harris County Animal Shelter: http://publichealth.harriscountytx.gov/About/Organization/VPH
Best Friends Animal Society: https://bestfriends.org/
AKC Reunite: http://www.akcreunite.org/
Houston Pets Alive: http://www.houstonpetsalive.org/