A pair of teams from the Connecticut Humane Society deployed to Texas last month to assist pets and shelter workers affected by Hurricane Harvey. Supporters like you made it possible for CHS to lend a paw to Houston. Two of CHS’ team members shared their Texas stories in a special CHS podcast audio recording, which is printed here in this abridged Q & A.
Why did you want to join the CHS team heading to Texas?
Jenn: When I started here in 2010, I heard lots of stories of people who’d gotten the chance to go help at Hurricane Katrina, and I’d been really waiting for that opportunity to arise again.
Eric: I was actually one of the people who did go to Katrina in 2005, and I think in general though, we all got into this field to help animals, and who needs more help than stray animals who are scared? So it was kind of just like, why wouldn’t you? It’s what you’re in the field for.
What were you expecting for the trip?
Eric: So I tried to just have an open mind. When I got there, the areas we were in weren’t like what I was expecting. No buildings were knocked down; no boats were in buildings like I saw in New Orleans. We didn’t see any of that in downtown Houston because most of the devastation was outside the city. Houston SPCA is really close to downtown Houston. So we didn’t see the devastation I thought I might see. But then when it came to the animals we took care of, it was very similar (to Katrina) in that the animals stunk, they were dirty, they were scared—well, scared when we first got there and then after a couple of days, they weren’t so scared because they got human contact. In that regard, it was what I expected with the animals, but it was so much more organized. The Houston SPCA was fantastic and a really tight-run ship. They take on what we would call a disaster here, probably on a weekly basis, with their animal cruelty investigations, so they were ready for it. When we got there, it was just about doing whatever we could to make their lives easier and to get them back to normal.
Jenn: I was part of the first team to go down, and when we were deployed, we still didn’t really know what to expect, where we were going to go, what kind of conditions we were going to see. I had no expectations. I was kind of ready for anything. The Houston SPCA is where I spent most of my time. One of the really interesting things about it is the HSCPA moved all of their adoptable animals out of that shelter in order to create room to house all these displaced animals. For 30 to 45 days, however long they are keeping them, they are not operating as an adoption agency. And that is a lot of stress and strain on their staff, but it was not evident. Their staff is phenomenal. They were working 6 days a week, 12- to 14-hour days, working right with you with a smile on their face. There’s a lot to be said about how well-run they are and how strong they are. These people have been affected. Their families have been affected by flooding. To see them coming to work every day working hard for those animals--it was very moving.
Did you talk to staff members who’d been affected by Hurricane Harvey at home?
Jenn: I did get a chance to work closely with their medical staff, and one of their technicians--her apartment got flooded, and she was displaced with her husband and two kids. They were fortunate enough to move in with her brother-in-law for a week or two, and they found another apartment and were in the process of moving in while we were there. She was one of the people working crazy hours in spite of everything she’d been through.
What was your schedule like?
Eric: Our schedule fluctuated a little bit. I was on the second team, and they were starting to get back to normal, so they were able to move a lot of the animals they took in out and not be so overloaded with everything. We were doing more of trying to get them closer to back to normal. But we didn’t get any days off; we worked straight through, which was fine because we were able to stay at a decent hotel and sit in air conditioning to rest, and we’re used to working here (at CHS) pretty hard, so it was okay, and we wanted to work hard and do what we could to make their lives easier.
What type of work did you do?
Jenn: I was able to help with the medical staff. Every animal there was treated as a shelter animal (even though they were owned) and got exams and was vaccinated. We helped unpack donations and food, and loaded up trucks. They actually sent our team to the post office because they had received so much mail that the post office would not deliver the mail to the shelter. They had to send staff to load a box truck with it to bring back to the shelter. We really did everything, much similarly to what we do here: animal care, feeding, cleaning, walking, enrichment. Our team did also help out at a facility in Beaumont outside Houston. They had set up a temporary shelter there where people hit very hard by the storm could bring animals who were displaced or found stray. So that was a mobile shelter with a different set-up. We would load up and bring animals from there to the Houston SPCA. Our staff was really well-utilized because a lot of volunteers were there but they weren’t trained animal care staff, so they were there to help, but it’s not always safe to have people who are not used to handling animals help with a transport. The HSPCA received some help from local veterinary hospitals to care for animals on medication, so we helped them load the animals from Houston SCPA up to be transported out. We did a lot of different things every day. We also helped in the wildlife center. People often don’t think about wildlife affected by a natural disaster. They had 300 baby squirrels that needed to be syringe-fed, and we did that almost every morning. Some days, we spent the whole day there caring for wildlife.
Eric: We did everything from cleaning empty cages, to feeding baby squirrels, to handling scared dogs in cages. Some were broken, with broken pelvises and legs and different things. I also went to pick up dogs at a boarding facility and bring them back. They were scared at first, but after a couple of days in the shelter, they were friendly with us. We organized their garage one day where they keep all their stuff because it was a mess. We went in and just completely organized everything for them. One day, we spent half the day doing laundry. They had to have a laundry service come pick up the laundry because there was so much. Just the little details, because they had so many more animals than they were used to. We were open to anything. Even just cleaning their cattery, which had 70 cats. These people were working 6 days a week, 12- or 15-hour days, and we wanted to give them a break. They were so happy and appreciative. Their staff was great, just all smiles and appreciative we were there and very friendly.
What kind of transporting was going on for pets?
Jenn: It was my understanding that in some cases, there was emergency boarding for people who had houses damaged and were displaced and needed a place for animals to stay while they were able to get their lives back together. Some were stray animals displaced because of the storm. Beaumont was hit so hard, that instead having people drive their animals all the way to the Houston SPCA, an hour-and-a-half drive, Houston set up a temporary shelter so Beaumont residents could bring animals to one specific location.
What other rescue groups did you work with?
Jenn: Because we there closer to the storm, I think we had more organizations at the same time. The ones I remember are Oregon and San Diego. They were there first because they have more experience doing deep water and swift water rescue. Atlanta Humane Society was there for a while and left earlier than expected because (Hurricane) Irma was coming. We were there with the Michigan Humane Society, Missouri Humane Society, SPCA LA. I believe there were some representatives from PETA and the ASPCA. It was quite a variety. Some organizations brought transport trucks used for animal transport to help take them back and forth from Beaumont or to and from veterinary hospitals.
How were things different or similar to what you see in CT?
Eric: There was a lot of heartworm, which is apparently a major problem there. As far as housing goes, we do lot of enrichment here, we’re a smaller shelter and can do a lot more. I think because they (HSCPA) were taking on double what they’re used to, they weren’t able to do as much, and the dogs were in a tough spot because they didn’t want to necessarily walk them all over the property because they may be carrying a disease, so we couldn’t always bring them outside as much as I would have liked. But because I was there toward the end, some things were getting back to normal. You’d start seeing their regular volunteers come in and give the animals their regular walks, because they rely, just like we do, heavily on volunteers.
Jenn: Like Eric was saying, the volume of animals they see there is much different than what we see here. Our organization does about 5,000 adoptions a year. I think they are at 15,000 adopted animals a year. They take in far more, so their shelter is a lot bigger; their staff is a lot bigger. They also do work with cruelty cases, so that was different. And just like with humans, different areas of the country see different medical things. Heartworm is very prevalent down in the south, and ringworm. It’s the perfect climate: moist and hot. They see more of those things there than we see here.
Were there particular animals who stood out to you?
Jenn: Absolutely. There were certain animals we’d walk every morning who stuck out in my mind, just very friendly, very happy, very content to just spend five minutes with you. That’s what makes our jobs here very rewarding and it’s those types of experiences that made being down there rewarding.
Eric: We were taking care of what they called small dog strays for the first few days. There was one with demodectic mange, a Chihuahua who was completely hairless and covered in scabs. It’s a non-contagious mange, so we were able to handle it, but it had no fur. You’d touch it, and it would just melt because it so happy to be touched. This dog had this before the storm, and was better off with us because he would have just stayed wherever he was like this. And then the dog next to it was just super friendly and wanted to show you his toy, and I played with him every day. And a Rottweiler who we were told was very dog-aggressive, but I didn’t see him be aggressive, and he was great and I had a blast with him. So some broken ones and some really happy ones. Usually the ones they say are going to be bad, either you do your magic and make them better, or they just become better, those are the ones who stick out to me. Or if we can make an uncomfortable animal more comfortable, if you can do that while you’re there, those are the ones who stand out to me.
Did you feel overwhelmed at any point about the work and what you were seeing?
Jenn: Our organization treated us very well and their organization treated us very well. So while they were long hours, I never felt overwhelmed. I think we all went with the intention of helping and we wanted to work and we wanted to be there, whether it was an 18-hour day or an 8-hour day. We were all committed to just doing what we could to help them.
Eric: The only thing that overwhelmed me was the heat! We’d walk out our hotel every morning before sunrise and get hit with this humidity and heat and then go and work in the shelter. I’m wiping sweat off myself constantly and looking at the locals, and they’re not sweating at all! I’m like, “Man, is something wrong with me?” They’d say, “You just gotta get used to it,” and that it was cool because it’s usually 10 degrees hotter!
How did you feel when it was time to come home?
Jenn: Since I was part of team 1, I knew we were sending team 2, so I was looking forward to coming back. I missed my work here. I was very happy to be there and for the opportunity, but I was ready to come back and see my family and get back to work here.
Eric: It was the same thing for me, wanting to be home and see my family and get to my normal routine, but it was bittersweet because now we were getting them back to normal, and I wanted to see what their normal days are like, and see people come in and adopt animals, and just see the staff happier and back in their normal routine. But I wanted to see my family.
Thank you to all the supporters who made CHS’ two deployments to Texas possible, and for also making it possible for 22 dogs from Galveston to come to CHS. The dogs had been in shelters before Hurricane Harvey hit and came to CHS for a fresh start. Thank you again to everyone who has been supporting.