- The Humane Society responds to disasters and provides relief for both animals in crisis and those who care for them.
In the United States, natural disaster response efforts ramp up in times of need, particularly for people who have lost their homes and livelihoods. Recently, we have had unprecedented winter storms, hurricanes, and wildfires—on top of COVID-19. While responses to disasters like these occur on local and national levels, people often overlook many aspects of a disaster. For example, animals are significantly affected by disasters of all kinds. The Humane Society of the United States addresses this frequently overlooked aspect of disaster relief with its Animal Rescue Team. We respond to disasters and provide relief for both the animals in crisis and those who care for them.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is the nation’s most pervasive and influential animal protection organization. Our motto is “fight for ALL animals,” and that is precisely what we strive to do. Some HSUS long-term goals include ending the fur trade, banning trophy hunting, stopping puppy mills, and ending cosmetic testing on animals. A large portion of this work occurs by crafting new legislation and lobbying to support bills that address these issues. The Animal Rescue Team (ART) is one small branch of the HSUS animal welfare powerhouse. My team focuses on rescuing and the subsequent care of animals from either man-made situations or natural disasters. The HSUS ART is the “boots on the ground” when there is a disaster at hand and communities need support.
The human-animal bond is inescapable, and so much of what we do is work to preserve that bond and keep families together. The work broadly encompasses animal welfare during disaster relief—a concept that is often misunderstood. Consider Hurricane Florence in 2018, when ART was deployed to rescue several cows. The family who owned them did not think that their property would flood and waited too long to get themselves to safety. Finally, they had to flee and leave their livestock behind, and they hoped for the best. The team boated down what once was a road, passing gates that barely peeked out of the water and a tractor that was almost completely submerged. The unfortunate reality is that cows, like many animals in these situations, are not designed for swimming. We had to rig each cow to large, specialty flotation devices and then guide them out of the floodwaters to dry land where the family was waiting.
After the 2018 wildfires in California, ART operated a temporary shelter for animals whose owners had lost their homes. One owner shared how she was at work when she got news of the fire reaching her neighborhood. She tried to get home to retrieve her dog but was stopped by police, who were not allowing people back into the area. She thankfully reached a neighbor who broke a window in her house to get her beloved dog out. Her home, like so many others, was destroyed. ART temporary shelter housed her dog, and this woman came almost every single day to visit. This general sentiment and story were true for so many—every day, we had families coming through our doors to visit their pets and keep us updated on their housing search. These are just two examples of what we commonly see in disasters: people are forced to choose between their safety and their pets. ART’s job is to respond to this kind of trauma and circumstance.
Use the skills you have to make a difference. If you aren’t in a position to bring an animal into your home, but you are, for example, really handy, consider offering those services. Many groups go into underserved communities and offer simple services like repairing fences for families who can’t afford it themselves but have a beloved dog who keeps escaping their yard. Or maybe you want to use your sharp legal brain to help? Check in with your local shelter to see if they need help rewriting their contracts or lobbying to pass a new ordinance. In a busy and hectic world, even just a small financial donation is often more impactful than individual donors will ever realize. These same opportunities are exacerbated in size and need during natural disasters, and every small donation during those times helps.
Natural disasters are not the only emergent situation that requires assistance. Get in touch with your local domestic violence shelter and offer to be a foster home for animals whose owners need to escape quickly. Women will often stay in abusive homes because they don’t have anywhere to take their animals (many domestic violence shelters don’t allow animals), and they are afraid of what will happen to the animal if they leave. You can save an animal and possibly even a human’s life by opening your home to foster these animals. If you don’t know about any programs like this in your area, many resources online can help you learn how to join or even start programs like this if they don’t already exist.
The ways in which you can volunteer your time are endless. But one thing is sure: your time and efforts are priceless. People in professional fields, like attorneys, are often inundated with information about volunteer and pro bono work. Simply taking a shelter dog for a walk is beneficial to the attorney and the dog. Whether it is during a natural disaster or in normal times of need, you can help animals without a voice in your community.
HSUS depends on the help of volunteers. We rely on them for help with everything from the daily care of animals in our shelters to aiding in passing meaningful legislation that can help prevent future suffering. Although volunteer work with animals may not be an obvious choice for people in the legal profession, you can take many important ventures in volunteer work.