Rescuing Pets From Natural Disasters

Hurricane Katrina taught pet rescuers valuable lessons.

This year's Hurricane Gustav may have spared New Orleans the worst damage, but it brought flashbacks of Hurricane Katrina for Richard Gerbasi.

Three weeks after Katrina hit in 2005, Gerbasi, director of field operations for the Rochester, N.Y., animal shelter Lollypop Farm, arrived in New Orleans to help manage frantic animal-rescue efforts. Working from a makeshift base at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, a huge fairground about an hour west of the city, search-and-rescue teams would comb New Orleans for dogs, cats and livestock as soon as dawn broke. Each night, by the time the teams returned, often as late as 11 p.m., they had retrieved an average of 300 animals, or more than 10,000 by the end of the rescue operation.

"Average burnout for rescue workers was about five days," recalls Gerbasi, who had traveled to New Orleans with Lollypop Farm's chief veterinarian and two vet technicians. "We spent a great deal of time examining, vaccinating and microchipping animals who were in rough shape. We saw a lot of mange and flea infestation."

Nearly 80% of the dogs rescued from Katrina were Pit Bulls bred for fighting, so volunteers had to work with extreme caution. "Leslie, our vet tech who did a lot of the holding, was a mass of bruises by the end of the day," Gerbasi says. And because the temperatures averaged 110°, "we'd have to wait until late to transport out animals who'd been overcome."

What can you do to help animals in the aftermath of a natural catastrophe? "Make financial donations," Gerbasi says. "Donated food or supplies often go to waste because they can't be transported fast enough. Money gives shelters flexibility." And volunteer, of course, but "only go to a site if you're invited. You can have a too-many-cooks problem in a rescue operation. And we had a lot of mavericks." Since Katrina, FEMA training has become mandatory for animal-rescue volunteers at natural-disaster sites.

For pet owners, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) recommends creating a disaster-supply kit for pets and including your animals in disaster and evacuation planning – if you evacuate, the organization urges, take your animals with you. And get to know local emergency-management officials so you can help set up animal-friendly preparedness, evacuation and sheltering options in your community. "Shelters are probably already filled to capacity prior to a disaster," Gerbasi says. The HSUS offers resources to start that conversation.

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