September 12, 2017

Small Town Saviors: The ASPCA Helps Families Affected by Hurricane Harvey

ASPCA responder E.G. Aguilar returning a cat to her pet parent
ASPCA responder E.G. Aguilar returns Princess, Marilyn Kilgore’s cat, to her at her home in Sour Lake, which was damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

Unlike Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, Hardin County, Texas, is relatively small. However, it too sustained tremendous damage during Hurricane Harvey, and its animals were equally imperiled. So when Hardin County Emergency Operations Center officials saw the ASPCA listed as a resource on the State of Texas Assistance Request website, they eagerly requested search-and-rescue, recovery and sheltering responders.

On September 4, that help arrived in Sour Lake, a Hardin County city roughly 75 miles northeast of Houston with a population of just 1,800. There, the ASPCA water teams rescued several animals from evacuated homes, including a gray-and-white cat and a Betta fish. They took the animals to Sour Lake Elementary School, where an impromptu shelter for dogs was set up on the school’s covered porch. Space for cats and small animals was allocated within the ASPCA’s mobile veterinary clinic.

Dolly, a Terrier mix
Dolly, a terrier-mix, is one of two dozen displaced animals cared for by ASPCA responders in Sour Lake.

Local residents were appreciative of the help.

“There is massive amounts of house-gutting and cleanup work in progress, but people are stopping to shake my hand,” says E.G. Aguilar, an ASPCA responder from Austin. “In neighborhoods piled with debris, they stop to say how much they appreciate the level of attention such a large organization is paying a small community. I’ve never shaken so many hands.”

Reuniting Pets and Their Owners

Reuniting the nearly two dozen dogs and cats with their owners is a top priority in the hurricane’s aftermath. “We want to reunite as many people with pets as possible,” says Lisa Starr, Director of Shelter Outreach for the ASPCA, who is overseeing the reunion efforts along with E.G. and Sue Anderson, another responder.

Lisa took photos of the displaced dogs and cats to create flyers, which were posted on social media as well as physically placed everywhere from car windshields and restaurants to liquor stores and gas stations. “People don’t always have resources like the Internet after a storm,” explains Starr.

found cat and dog flyers

E.G. spoke with residents at the local Dairy Queen and fire department in an effort to locate pet owners.  “We hope residents will recognize these animals,” he says. “Hopefully, because of the nature of this small town, some of these animal angels will find their way home.”

A Lady in Waiting

Lady, a 12-year-old Golden Retriever, was one of two dogs separated from Sour Lake resident Harvey Sterling’s family during the storm. While family members were able to retrieve Duchess, their other dog, they were bereft when they couldn’t immediately locate Lady.

Days later, Harvey’s son Jonathan spotted Lady’s photo after Lisa posted it to the “Neighbors Helping Neighbors Sour Lake” Facebook page. A group of Good Samaritans had recovered Lady from the storm and dropped her off at the school.

On Friday, five days after she was lost, Mr. Sterling’s children picked up Lady. Jonathan and his wife, Tiffany, along with Jonathan’s brother Steven and sister-in-law, Jeri, relished in the homecoming.

Lady, a 12-year-old golden retriever, being reunited with the Sterling family of Sour Lake
Lady, a 12-year-old Golden Retriever, being reunited with the Sterling family of Sour Lake on Sept. 10. From left: Jeri and Stephen, Tiffany and Jonathan, and the ASPCA’s Lisa Starr, who helped coordinate reunification efforts.

“We were very glad to see her safe, and thank you for being there for her,” said Jonathan.

“When I saw Lady’s tail wagging and how happy she was—and the family smiling and telling me how they thought they’d lost her forever—it warmed my heart,” Lisa recalls. “The bond between animals and people has been really apparent during this operation. In the face of losing everything, people still have their families, which includes their pets.” 

The Princess and the Fish

On Sunday afternoon, Lisa and E.G. visited the home of Marilyn Kilgore, whose cat, Princess, and fish, Jimmy John, were rescued by the ASPCA’s Bryan Hayes and professional responder Scott Sherlock on September 5. “I didn’t think you’d survive, Jimmy John!” Ms. Kilgore exclaimed, looking through the bowl at her beloved fish as she and a neighbor sifted through decades of belongings. While her house is uninhabitable for the time being, Ms. Kilgore has Jimmy John at her hotel while a neighbor watches Princess.

“Ms. Kilgore lost family heirlooms, antiques, her house,” E.G. states. “But reuniting her with Jimmy John provided a huge lift for her. These relationships with animals are greater than any possession we could ever own. And to be able to give Ms. Kilgore that comfort was a tremendous thing.”

ASPCA responder E.G. Aguilar with Princess
ASPCA responder E.G. Aguilar with Princess, who was safely returned to her owner after being rescued by ASPCA water teams.

For E.G., who had a previous career in sales, reuniting pets and people is a rewarding experience. “It’s better than any commission check that I could have ever made,” he says. “Working to improve the relationships between people and animals makes life worth living.”

Remaining Animals

Animals remaining at Sour Lake Elementary School and not claimed by September 13 will be transported to the Humane Society of North Texas in Fort Worth, where the ASPCA has made arrangements to continue housing these pets through the required 30-day hold period for storm animals as we try to identify owners. Pets who are not re-claimed will then be put up for adoption.

The ASPCA’s temporary shelter in Sour Lake, Texas
The ASPCA’s temporary shelter in Sour Lake, Texas, was located at Sour Lake Elementary School.

If owners want to reclaim those pets once they’ve been transferred to Fort Worth, please contact Lori Sanderson at [email protected].