Friends for Life, a no kill animal shelter located in the Houston Heights, made history during Hurricane Harvey. The nonprofit organization teamed up with the American Red Cross to help shelter people with their pets in the George R. Brown Convention Center. It had never been tried before, but thanks to the fine work of Friends for Life, it will happen again.
Hurricane Katrina taught us lessons. Many people in New Orleans refused to evacuate because pets were not welcome in shelters. There is no way to know how many people died as a result, but the Red Cross revised its sheltering model following; the agency now allows pets. With Harvey, the Red Cross was prepared to shelter people, but not animals. Then Friends For Life stepped up.
“I sit on the advisory board of the city of Houston animal shelter,” explained Salise Shuttlesworth J.D., founder and Executive Director of Friends For Life, a nonprofit agency deeply dedicated to keeping pets and people together. The Sunday night of the storm, I received a call from the city. The city shelter was flooded, and there was nothing they could do. There were evacuees arriving with animals at the GRB and the Red Cross was at a loss for managing the challenge.”
Shuttlesworth got in her truck and raced through the rain to the GRB. When she arrived, she found more than 100 people in line out front, most holding animals. “People and pets kept coming in big dump trucks – families with pets, elderly folks with animals in their arms – truck after truck,” Shuttlesworth remembered.
The director set up a table outside the only “Pets Permitted” hall at the GRB, dubbed the “Doggy Dorm,” and authorities began letting people with pets enter. Shuttleworth registered each evacuee and animal.
The director also made some calls. By the next day, FFL’s volunteer army was on the ground working throughout the Doggy Dorm. Every resident was registered and each member of the family, the animal, and the animal’s crate received a number. The FFL Army cleaned litter boxes, played with children, comforted adults, walked dogs, and more. They did whatever it took.
“We realized we were under a microscope,” stated Shuttlesworth. “We understood the objections to the new sheltering model. Naysayers said, ‘It will be too noisy; it will be filthy, it will be chaos.’ We approached each objection head-on.
“The dorm remained so clean the health department became our advocate,” Shuttlesworth continued. “To maintain order, each owner was given a crate, collar and leash on admission. The pet was assigned an ID collar and the owner was issued a corresponding ID bracelet. The data was entered into a spreadsheet for check-out.”
When Dr. Katie Eick, DVM, heard there were evacuees housed with their pets at the GRB, she drove her South by South Vets mobile clinic to the center. “I quickly found Salise and the Friends for Life army. I thought I would walk into chaos, but it wasn’t, thanks to FFL,“ she said.
The medical professional spent two weeks helping pets and organizing volunteering veterinarians at shelters all over the region. She knew she was making a difference “A large portion of the evacuees would not a have left their pets behind; they would have stayed with them. For some, their pets were the only family they had. This experiment worked very well, and saved lives. I hope the nation takes notice,” Dr. Eick concluded.
“Our challenge was sheltering hundreds of pets and people together and there were no manuals or templates. We were flying blind.” Shuttlesworth explained.
“However, we learned a lot, and we are putting it to use. We are writing the first manual for people-pet sheltering available. We’ve already taken a call from Asia requesting one,” the director stated.
The GRB would ultimately act as host to 10,000 evacuees while Friends for Life’s volunteers and veterinarians helped more than 1,500 pets, including dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and ferrets before it was over.
“We could see relief wash over the evacuees when we’d say, ‘Yes, your pet is welcome,’ and ‘Yes, we have cat litter, creates or a leash.’ These are the moments that got us through this challenging event. We certainly hope we won’t have to do it again, but if we have to, we sure will,” Shuttlesworth concluded.
How can you help? Attend “Rebel with a Cause: the Friends For Life 2017 Fundraiser!”
On Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, FFL will gather at Silver Street Studios to celebrate the resilience of our community and raise funds for animals in this time of great need. This year marks 15 years on making a difference. Enjoy dinner, drinks, music, and a big board auction. Get a special tour of FFL’s 26’ Mobile Adoption Vehicle. More importantly, spend an evening with fellow rebels, who stood up to nature to protect our most vulnerable.
Please go to www.friends4life.org to sign up.