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By Kim Hogstrom
Tropical Storm Harvey brought several tragic “firsts” for Houston. The record-setting rain event marked the first time that some areas flooded, and the first time that many residents had to evacuate their homes. What some don’t know is the wonderful “first” that happened without fanfare at the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB) shelter—one that is changing disaster response worldwide.
Volunteers from Friends For Life (FFL), a nonprofit, no-kill shelter in the Heights, worked nonstop for two weeks to help evacuees shelter with their pets in the GRB. Sheltering pets and people together had never been done on this scale, but thanks to FFL, it won’t be the last time.
The nation learned a sad lesson from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Some residents of New Orleans refused to evacuate their homes because pets weren’t allowed in shelters.
An estimated 140,000 pets died in Katrina, prompting the American Red Cross to revise its sheltering model and admit animals. While noble in intent, the new sheltering approach had not been tested, or even organized, until Friends For Life stepped up.
Salise Shuttlesworth, FFL’s founder and executive director, also sits on the board for the City of Houston’s animal shelter, and on Sunday night, August 27, she received a phone call. “There were evacuees arriving with animals at the GRB, but no people or supplies to help them,” Shuttlesworth says.
So she and her wife, Halina Dodd, raced through the pounding rain to the GRB. When they arrived, there were hundreds of people in line outside holding cats, dogs, rabbits, kittens, and more. “It was raining so hard that the manhole covers in front of the building were lifting off,” Shuttlesworth recalls. “The evacuees were huddled over their animals trying to keep them dry. And people continued unloading from dump trucks—entire families with pets. Some were in wheelchairs, animals in their arms. It was people and pets, nonstop.”
Shuttlesworth and Dodd set up a table in the corridor outside the only “Pets Permitted” hall, soon to be dubbed the “Doggy Dorm,” and authorities started letting in people with pets. The two women registered each evacuee and animal, and assigned them a number.
That was the beginning of a long, sleepless night that turned into a two-week marathon. They were told to expect 35 or 40 pets. In the first 24 hours, the team registered 671.
The GRB would ultimately host 10,000 evacuees, while Friends For Life’s volunteers and veterinarians would help more than 1,200 pets—including dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, and one chicken—before it was over. “Our challenge was sheltering hundreds of pets and people together. There were no manuals or templates for it, let alone on such a massive scale,” Shuttlesworth says. “We were flying blind.”
By Monday morning, FFL’s volunteer army was on the ground working throughout the dorm. They cleaned cat boxes, swept up litter, laughed with children, listened to adults, walked dogs, and more.
Shuttlesworth placed calls requesting donations, and soon pet provisions arrived by the truckload. Cleaning supplies, crates, leashes, litter boxes, litter, and mountains of pet food appeared. Volunteers quickly opened a sort of on-site PetSmart, but everything was free.
When Dr. Katie Eick heard there were evacuees housed with their pets at the GRB, she knew she could help. On Monday morning, Dr. Eick drove her South by South Vets mobile clinic to the center to volunteer. “I just showed up,” she says. “It didn’t take long to find Salice and the Friends For Life army. I thought I would walk into chaos in there, but it wasn’t. It was calm, even peaceful.”
What sort of pet ailments did Dr. Eick treat while working in the GRB? “It was mostly pet wellness: vaccinations, skin conditions, fleas, those sort of things,” she says. “The thing to remember is that a large portion of the people in there would not have evacuated without their pets. I know that for a fact. For many, their pets were the only family they had. I hope the nation takes notice, because this sheltering experiment worked very well, and there are reasons why.”
Shuttlesworth says she and her volunteers knew they would be “on trial.” “We understood the objections to the new model—‘It will be too noisy; it will be filthy—complete chaos,’” she says, adding that they tackled each issue head-on.
“The dorm remained so clean that the health department became our leading advocate and asked if we would send our team to other dorms,” she says, laughing. “There was very little noise, because a volunteer was always there to calm or feed a pet in need. And the organization started on the first night.”
Owners received crates, leashes, and I.D. bracelets, and pets got corresponding I.D. collars. The data was entered into a spreadsheet used to track admission, inventory, vet care, and checkout.
“We learned a lot, and we are putting it to use,” Shuttlesworth says. “Friends For Life is writing the first manual for people-pet sheltering ever. We’ve already had a call from Sri Lanka requesting one.”
The “Doggy Dorm” was a cavernous space containing hundreds of cots lined up in rows. Beside the cots sat piles of belongings and pet crates. Sometimes the crates were empty.
“Red Cross rules called for pets to be crated at all times, but we didn’t strictly observe that,” Shuttlesworth explains. “If the animals walked around, they had to be leashed, but both the pets and owners were exceedingly stressed. Often, pets slept with families, which helped everyone—two-legged and four—through this horrible time in their lives.”
The situation was both emotionally exhausting and uplifting. “Did I cry? Yes, we all cried,” she adds. “Sometimes we cried alongside the people evacuated. But we were happy to help because we knew, for so many, it meant the difference between life and death.
“There were also great rewards,” Shuttlesworth adds. “The best part was the relief you could see wash over someone when we said, ‘Yes, you can bring your pet,’ or ‘Yes, we have food, litter, or a leash.’ These are the moments that sustained us. And these are the reasons we will do it all again.”
This article appears in the October 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.