Editor’s note: This article has been updated throughout.
In a temporary shelter location inside a strip mall on Burnet Road, hundreds of crated dogs and cats are tended to by Austin Pets Alive! volunteers and staff.
Veterinarians are poking syringes of medication between grates. Cars pull up to the front doors to pick up animals headed for foster homes. Two volunteers carry a crate covered with a towel through the crowded front doors, a full-grown cat and a handful of kittens—too small to be separated from their mother—looking out with squinted eyes.
As of Tuesday, APA Has taken in more than 2,000 animals displaced or separated from their owners as a result of Hurricane Harvey and the ensuing flooding.
The animals in the Burnet Road shelter were pulled from the water or off of a roof or from the top of a car in the middle of a flooded street in Houston.
“No one else was doing it,” Mary Heerwald, APA’s director of marketing and communications, said, just back from Houston herself.
Four APA staff members—and hundreds of volunteers—worked on the ground in Houston and Katy, where the organization set up a temporary site to facilitate reunions and transport.
Like many Harvey responders, APA used Facebook and Twitter to crowdsource rescues. From is Katy headquarters, staff directed followers to locations in Beaumont where animals had been left behind.
From there, the animals were processed from APA’s temporary site in Katy.
“We try to move pets out of there as quickly as possible,” Heerwald said.
The Katy site was on asphalt and not ideal conditions for animals, but it served as a conduit for hundreds of pets, either bound for the Best Friends Animal Society’s temporary shelter in Houston or to the Burnet Road shelter in Austin.
Animals who could not be confirmed as strays—either because they had been part of Houston’s existing shelter population or because their owners had surrendered them—were sent to Houston in the hopes of returning them to their homes.
Pets with no chance of being claimed were sent to Austin.
Some of the dogs had broken legs.
Almost all of the cats had upper respiratory infections caused by stress. Many had ringworm.
There were a few cases of mange.
The APA staff counted 40 pregnant cats and 10 pregnant dogs among the pets they safely rescued.
At its peak, the Burnet Road shelter housed some 800 dogs and cats, in about equal numbers. Staff had to stop accepting in-kind donations of crates, pet food and other supplies for lack of space. (They are still accepting supplies at their other shelter location and by mail.)
But because of the outpouring of support from no-kill shelters from around the country and from Austin residents keen to foster displaced animals, many of those animals weren’t there for long.
Once they received standard vaccines and were treated for any extenuating medical conditions, many of the pets found foster homes here in Austin.
Typically, APA manages about 200 fosters homes for dogs and 200 for cats. Since Hurricane Harvey, the organization has overseen the fostering of 700 dogs and more than 700 cats.
“It has been a huge undertaking,” Heerwald said. “The only way that this has been able to work and this this life-saving initiative has been able to progress is by the volunteerism of this community and the community in Katy.”
Many volunteers, she said, were not working with dogs or cats but were instead cleaning kennels or building crates that had been donated.
Everyone had to learn on the job.
“You don’t have the luxury of time,” Heerwald said of responding to a natural disaster.
Although APA coordinated pet rescues during the Bastrop County Complex Fire in 2011 and has dealt with flooding at its own permanent shelter in Austin, the organization has never participated in “anything of this magnitude.”
Instead, APA relied on the community for support. An extensive volunteer network already in place coupled with an outpouring of donations from around the country enabled APA to take in more than 2,000 animals in 10 days.
“Don’t underestimate the power of your pet-loving community because it is significant and it’s the only way we’ve been able to make it through this thus far,” Heerwald said.
For those interested in supporting APA!’s efforts, the organization recommends donating money here, applying to foster a dog or cat—especially older animals that need to be the only pet in the house or those with medical conditions—and signing up as an emergency, short-term volunteer.
If you are hoping to reunite with a lost pet or to post the whereabouts of a found animal, APA! recommends registering with Best Friends Animal Society and VetsPlusMore, which have partnered to create a free listing app.