The Lesson of Harvey and Irma: An Animal’s Best Ally is Its Community

September 21, 2017

ASPCA volunteer holding a dog in a carrier

By Matt Bershadker, ASPCA CEO

It’s easy to focus solely on the wake of tragedy and destruction left by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. But our reactions to these storms—especially the rescue and care of displaced animals—reinforce that compassion for animals is a deeply held core value in our society. On television and in person, we saw countless pet owners courageously carrying their animals—dogs, cats, pigs, turtles, birds and more—to safety.

This deep two-way bond isn’t just between animal owners and their personal pets. It’s shared by a larger community of neighbors, rescuers, adopters, fosters and local shelters who dedicate themselves to the safety and protection of animals in need.

When shelters themselves needed help, they too were assisted. The ASPCA helped relocate over 1,000 homeless animals from overburdened shelters in Texas, Florida, and South Carolina to our South Carolina emergency shelter, as well as to other shelters nationwide.

Rescue Organizations Work Best When They Work Together

Local and national animal welfare organizations and agencies are also part of this community of compassion, and the enormous need for rescue work in Texas and Florida—more than enough to overwhelm any single group—makes collaborations not only advantageous, but necessary. This is a time for different and sometimes disparate groups to unify under the same humane goals to tackle these challenges together. The more animal advocates support each other, the more we help the animals we’re committed to protecting.

Before, during, and after the storm, the ASPCA proudly partnered with organizations including the Houston SPCA, the SPCA of Texas, the Galveston County Animal Resource Center, Miami Dade Animal Services, Lee County Domestic Animal Services and the South Carolina Emergency Management Division. We also collaborated with dozens of other shelters, agencies and animal welfare organizations to provide direct response, critical supplies and vital services to animals in need.

Working together, we were able to quickly understand the affected communities we were operating in, and conduct rescue, relocation and sheltering operations, as well as distribute critical pet supplies, efficiently and effectively. This effort ultimately assisted more than 2,800 animals impacted by both hurricanes.

Our 40,000 square-foot emergency shelter in Duncan, South Carolina, which has cared for more than 560 displaced and unowned animals from across Florida and South Carolina, symbolizes the significant impact of national-local partnerships, and I encourage you to support these dedicated organizations.

The Importance of Disaster Preparation

While communities focus on animal protection, rescue and shelter during times of crisis, it’s an owner’s job to focus on prevention. Natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reinforce how early preparation—including creating go-kits of water, food, medication and bowls—saves lives, especially during quick evacuations. We also recommend never leaving your pets behind, making sure they wear I.D. tags and are microchipped and identifying and designating emergency locations and caregivers.

Having a plan in place also saves rescuers from having to take extraordinary and sometimes dangerous measures to reach animals in distress. I hope these disasters motivate you to review your own level of preparedness.

(The ASPCA offers more disaster prep suggestions as well as a free app to store medical and identification records and maintain a disaster prep checklist.)

Congress is also trying to make progress on animal safety during disasters. This week, with help and support from the ASPCA, Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) introduced the Animal Emergency Planning Act, legislation that would require American Welfare Act licensees to develop disaster plans and keep them on file—a rule long delayed by USDA. 

Creating a Positive Legacy

Requests for hurricane-related assistance keep coming in, and as more responders head to areas of need and more animals and people move from vulnerability to safety, my hope is that these storms leave behind legacies of compassion even larger than their paths of devastation.

We don’t know where the next disaster or crisis will fall, but we do know that our pets have a large community to rely on when it does. So seek out and support your own community of animal-loving groups, shelters, organizations and leaders. I promise you, there’s safety in numbers.