As Hurricane Harvey spun its way toward the Texas coast last week, the state chapter of American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Dallas alerted pet shelters and adoption centers that it had room for 300 animals affected by the storm.
Within hours, a shelter in Corpus Christi had transferred 123 cats to the SPCA’s animal rescue center. Maura Davies, SPCA of Texas spokeswoman, told the Dallas Morning News that the transfer helped free up space in Corpus Christi for pets displaced by the storm.
"We knew if we could lighten their load, they can do more to help animals and people on the ground," she said.
As now-Tropical Storm Harvey continues to chase Texas residents from their flooded homes, animal rescue groups, shelters and adoption centers are scrambling to accommodate a surge of dogs, cats and other animals who, like their owners, suddenly need a place to live.
By Saturday, Austin Pets Alive, a central Texas adoption center, had transported more than 235 animals to its facility from shelters in Harvey’s path. And they are bracing for more in the coming days.
“We’ve been receiving reports from shelter partners in areas expecting the most flooding that over the course of the next 24-72 hours, they are anticipating another significant influx of animals that they may not be able to help,” the center said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, animal-welfare groups are opening their doors to homeless dogs and cats threatened by the storm. The Atlanta Humane Society accepted the first of what could be several truckloads of shelter animals from Louisiana on Saturday morning. The local humane society in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, took in 35 homeless dogs from a New Orleans shelter Sunday night.
The threat to pets and other domestic animals in a natural disaster came to full light in 2006, when Hurricane Katrina left some 250,000 dogs and cats dead or displaced, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Many New Orleans residents chose not to heed warnings to evacuate the city because they did not want to leave their pets, who were barred from shelters. According to news reports, nearly half the people who needed rescue from Katrina refused to leave without their pets, while first responders would not even take service animals.
But, thanks to new laws passed after Katrina, the federal response to natural disasters must include assistance for people with pets or service animals.
The Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure state and local emergency preparedness and evacuation plans include provisions for the care and shelter of pets. The laws also authorize search and rescue operations as essential assistance in the wake of a major disaster declaration.
While it’s too early to know how these laws have played out in Texas, there have, thankfully, been few stories of abandoned pets in Harvey's wake, at least so far. Meanwhile, pet and animal rescue operations appear to be a higher priority and relatively well coordinated compared to Hurricane Katrina.
After dozens of people and their pets were barred from entering Houston’s main emergency shelter, the George R. Brown Convention Center, city and county officials reversed course.
In San Antonio, the city has taken the lead in handling the needs of adoption centers and evacuees from Alvin, Houston and other flooded areas. Nearly 200 dogs and cats were taken in by San Antonio’s Animal Care Services, including 30 dogs from a flooded shelter in Pleasanton. Owners are given a contact number to keep tabs on their pets, and veterinarians are on hand to offer vaccinations and other medical care.
Another factor that may have reduced the number of abandoned pets is a new state law. Passed it 2007, it prohibits dog owners from leashing their pet outside and unattended whenever a “hurricane, tropical storm, or tornado warning has been issued for the jurisdiction by the National Weather Service.”
And at least one law enforcement official intends to make sure it's followed.
In a Facebook post, Stephen Carlisle, chief of police in Roman Forest, a town of about 1,600 people in Montgomery County, Texas, recalled the death of a dog that was tied to a tree as the waters from a 2015 flood of the San Jacinto River rose.
“The dog barked and barked as the water kept rising until the water got high enough and the barks stopped.”
Concluded the chief, "I promise you, that I will hold anyone accountable that unlawfully restrains their dog in extreme weather conditions.
"Dogs are your family members too."