By Katie Marsico
Hurricanes, fires, and other natural disasters rip apart communities and take lives. Residents in affected areas are often faced with the loss of their homes and sometimes even their loved ones. People dealing with such devastation are all too frequently plagued by the thought of pets they’ve been forced to leave behind. Luckily, redemption comes in the form animalrescue responders who travel cross-country to save lives and rebuild families.
Kate McClelland of Marietta, Georgia, trained with the American Humane Association as a volunteer emergency responder, and Katrina was her first disaster. Amid reports of looting, toxic waters, and chaos, a list surfaced of about 3,500 houses where animals were trapped. Frantic pet guardians called in begging for help, and McClelland’s nervousness was quickly replaced by a sense of dedication to the task at hand.
“I was a little anxious before I arrived in New Orleans,” McClelland admits, “but once I saw how vast the need was, worry didn’t even cross my mind.” McClelland worked with 20 other responders from the AHA. She traveled with a team of four people—two responders, a vet, and a national guardsman. In the beginning, her mission was to rescue stranded animals. As it became more apparent that residents would soon return home, she and other AHA rescuers endeavored to get food and fresh water to pets whose guardians were on their way back. During her time in New Orleans, McClelland encountered everything from dogs and cats to snakes and geese. She and her team worked from sunrise to sunset in 100-degree temperatures and nearly 100 percent humidity. Sadly, once she made it inside a flooded home, McClelland also had to make sure that it was secure when she left to prevent looting.
In addition to facing tremendous physical challenges, rescuers often find themselves dealing with incredible emotional stress. Dr. Garry Goemann, DVM, is the commander of a Veterinary Medical Assistance Team that pools responders from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and even as far as California and the East Coast. VMAT provides veterinary treatment during disasters and addresses public-health issues related to animals. Goemann has dealt with disasters ranging from the World Trade Center bombing to Hurricane Katrina and can attest that the job isn’t for everyone.
“Some people can’t handle it,” Goemann says. “It’s easy to become incredibly drained and overwhelmed. VMAT provides intensive training for that reason. It’s important for rescuers to be prepared.” Goemann endured nine straight days of rescue efforts during a 1997 flood in Marysville, California. He and other rescuers worked out of boats, saving animals from rooftops and retrieving struggling livestock from deep water.
“I truly felt sorry for the animals,” Goemann says. “You always do. But if you don’t know how to handle certain situations [that deal with hazardous materials] or if you’re not equipped to deal with the emotional drain, you can actually impede rescue efforts.”
Rescuing pets in the wake of a disaster can prove to be challenging on several fronts. But it is also tremendously rewarding. Allison Cardona is the manager of Special Events and Outreach at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City. Cardona arrived in New Orleans in early September and was active in water rescue following Katrina. She and other rescuers were forced to wear protective dry suits due to the toxicity of the surrounding floodwater. Cardona attests to the challenges of working in sweltering heat and chest-level water in an unfamiliar area. Yet one rescue calls to mind the satisfaction of her efforts.
“My team was doing a sweep, which basically means that we’d go past buildings in our boat and whistle. We’d then wait for barking or noise—some sign of life. We suddenly heard this frantic meowing, and I spotted a 10-month-old kitten clinging to a bush. I jumped into the water, plucked her off, and she simply melted in my arms. We gave her some fluids and got her veterinary care. An hour later, she was jumping up and down and playing at the temporary shelter that was set up at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, Louisiana.”
McClelland has similar stories and is amazed at how many times her team was simply in the right place at the right time. “At one point, we went into a Subway for lunch,” she recalls. “There was a woman crying in the corner, so we approached her. She told us her 5-year-old son had been forced to leave his Gila monster behind, and she wasn’t able to get back to her home to feed him. She was dreading telling her little boy that his pet was going to die. So, we got the address, made it to the house, and set up the Gila monster, Stan, with food and water for a week. We were able to write to the lady and tell her that Stan was going to be just fine.”
As soon as disaster strikes, rescuers from various groups and agencies are forced to put aside differences and work together toward a common goal. People from myriad geographic regions and with diverse opinions and policies related to animal welfare unite to save lives.
“We had everyone from the Texas SPCA to the Furry Friends Foundation in Chicago come to help,” says Amber Bethel, the communications and development director at the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New Orleans. “We had veterinarians and humane officers, but there were also a huge amount of volunteers who simply wanted to be part of rescue efforts because they were animal lovers.” What also was incredible was the unity among the countless animal-welfare groups that joined forces in Louisiana and Mississippi.
“Everyone just came together because they realized there was this huge job that had to get done,” Cardona says. “It was incredible teamwork.” To this end, the AHA recently announced the formation of the National Emergency Animal Rescue Coalition. Members of this coalition also include the ASPCA, Animal Welfare Institute, Doris Day Animal League, Society for Animal Protective Legislation, Humane Society of the United States, United Animal Nations, and World Society for the Protection of Animals. The coalition intends to work with Congress to establish an emergency-disaster response plan for animals. In the meantime, rescuers like McClelland say they’d respond to the call for help again in a heartbeat.
“I actually cried when I left New Orleans,” McClelland says. “I just wanted to stay and help more animals.”
For more information on animal-rescue efforts or to make a donation, visit: