Between late August and the end of 2017, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) deployed to six states and the U.S. Virgin Islands in response to four disasters: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the wildfires in Northern California. In all, the ASPCA assisted nearly 37,000 animals affected by these disasters. Although each response required a unique approach, one particular objective was consistent throughout, which likely saved thousands of animal lives – animal relocation.
Local government typically imposes a minimum holding time for animals that are brought into a community shelter. After their holding time is complete, these animals are available for adoption. When a disaster is imminent, shelters try to move these unclaimed animals out of the shelter to ensure their safety and to make room in case more animals arrive after the disaster strikes. This process of moving unclaimed animals is referred to as “relocation” or “relo.”
The goal in a relocation effort is to place the at-risk animals in parts of the country where there is the greatest likelihood for finding new homes. The ASPCA has a large network of receiving shelters for this purpose. In 2017, the ASPCA Animal Relocation team helped transport more than 1,600 homeless animals out of communities struck by disasters. Many of those animals have already been adopted.
When there is over 40’ of rain – and in some places over 50’ – stranded humans and animals are likely. Hurricane Harvey provided just that scenario, with 122,331 people rescued or evacuated. A rule of thumb in animal emergency response is that pet population ranges between 52% and 59% of the human population. This suggests that thousands of animals were rescued following Harvey in August 2017. In anticipation of Harvey’s landfall in Texas, a number of animal shelters began to transport shelter-owned (unclaimed) animals out of state. Relocation activities started several days before landfall and continued for several weeks after the storm. The Texas Animal Health Commission estimated that 765 companion animals were in state-run co-located shelters and 1,424 pets were in independent shelters. Many animals that were not reunited with their owners were transported to neighboring shelters.
The ASPCA’s search-and-rescue and medical teams deployed to multiple locations in both Texas and Louisiana following Harvey’s landfall and assisted or established emergency shelters for displaced animals in Dallas and Sour Lake, Texas. There, hundreds of owned pets were cared for until their owners could return home to claim them. In addition, the ASPCA evacuated hundreds of animals from Texas – some of whom were relocated to the ASPCA’s Adoption Center in New York City.
Similar to Hurricane Harvey, relocation efforts played a critical role before and after Irma made landfall in September 2017. Given the general agreement on the tracking of the storm – and with memories of Matthew fresh on residents’ minds – evacuations were underway well before Irma even hit Cuba. Animal shelters in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina were seeking assistance in moving their unclaimed animals out of state. It is important to note that shelters in the south move pets to areas in the north all year long and many shelters have established partners that are willing to take their unclaimed pets and, in some cases, are even willing to come pick them up.
In a disaster, with limited resources, a rescue group cannot afford to take a transport vehicle out of service for any length of time. In the case of Irma, the ASPCA set up a waystation in Duncan, South Carolina. This 40,000 square-foot emergency shelter temporarily housed evacuated animals from three states and scores of agencies. Nearly 600 animals were sheltered there until the Animal Relocation team identified receiving shelters. In total, the ASPCA assisted more than 11,000 animal victims of Hurricane Irma through water and field search-and-rescue operations, emergency sheltering, distribution of pet food and supplies, and relocation efforts.
On the mainland, it is relatively easy for a family to evacuate with pets, assuming plans were made early and transportation is available. However, living on an island is more challenging for evacuating with pets. Seats are limited, airlines have become more restrictive on how pets fly, and it is expensive. Consequently, a much smaller percent of residents evacuate from an island with their pets than do their counterparts on the mainland. In the case of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in September 2017, hundreds – if not thousands – of animals were displaced, abandoned, or free-roaming.
At the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture, the ASPCA deployed its disaster response team to St. Croix to help assess needs for animals affected by the Category 5 storm and establish an emergency shelter for displaced animals. For more than three months, nearly 150 responders were deployed to perform animal search and rescue and to provide daily care for small and large animals. Veterinary and behavior experts provided ongoing support for nearly 600 displaced animals at the ASPCA emergency shelter. Every animal that the ASPCA took in was reunited with their families, adopted to new families, or transported off the island.
Although transporting an animal by air is faster, it is not as cost-effective as by land. For example, an air transport of 100 animals could easily cost up to $50,000. In Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, it was difficult to get in larger airplanes, which meant that multiple trips were needed using smaller planes with a capacity of 30+ animals. Nearly 400 cats and dogs – either not owned before Hurricane Maria or surrendered afterward – were relocated from St. Croix to the ASPCA’s expansive network of shelters and rescue groups on the mainland United States, where they were made available for adoption. According to the Humane Society of the United States, over 2,000 animals were airlifted from Puerto Rico.
The first request the ASPCA received for the northern California fires in October 2017 was to provide emergency sheltering supplies for Mendocino and Sonoma counties. With the assistance of the American Red Cross and American Logistics Aid Network, the ASPCA was able to transfer supplies from its warehouse in San Francisco to affected areas within 24 hours. The Tubbs Fire, which was the largest and most destructive of the complex of fires, hit Sonoma County and the Napa Valley quickly and late at night – providing very little warning and little time for people to evacuate with their pets. Livestock and specifically horses were at the greatest risk as owners rushed to transport their animals to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. At one point, over 700 horses were at the fairgrounds and hundreds of pets were sheltered in co-located and co-habitated shelters throughout the county.
It is estimated that over 5% of available housing in Santa Rosa was lost to the fire, making it very difficult for residents to find adequate housing for themselves and their pets. Consequently, a significant number of pets have either been relinquished or boarded with facilities outside the county. Since this put a significant burden on bay area shelters, requests were issued for help in relocating unclaimed animals to make room for fire victims. With the cooperation of Alaska Airlines, more than 30 cats and dogs were moved from the bay area to ASPCA partners in the region.
In 2017, the ASPCA was active in 19 states with 30 deployments, rescuing 4,500 animals and assisting 40,000 animals through search and rescue, sheltering, and relocation program.
Richard (Dick) Green is the senior director of disaster response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Before the ASPCA, he was the emergency relief manager for disasters at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). He has responded to well over a hundred international and national disasters. International responses include typhoons in Taiwan, Philippines, and Australia, volcano eruptions in Philippines and Iceland, and earthquakes in China, Haiti, and Japan. Recent domestic responses include the Hawaii lava flow, Butte County Fire, Santa Barbara Mudslides, and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Florence. He has trained hundreds of responders in disaster prevention and response and has developed training curricula for Slackwater Rescue, Water Rescue for Companion Animals, and Rope Rescue for Companion Animals. His book, “Animals in Disasters,” was published in February 2019.