After Harvey, Texas rallies to rescue cats and dogs, with lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina

A cat from League City, Texas, is brought from a big-rig truck to the Emancipet clinic in Houston.
(Hailey Branson-Potts / Los Angeles Times)

The big-rig truck was full of cats: Theo, who had a bit of a sneeze. Vennessa, who was acting like a diva. Two Thomases. And Buck, who, to everyone’s surprise, was a girl.

They had been living in shelters in southeast Texas. But with Hurricane Harvey leaving untold numbers of family pets stranded, these cats were being shipped to an emergency shelter across the country to free up space in local facilities for animals being plucked from the floodwaters.

Harvey has initiated a mass shuffling of thousands of shelter animals. They’re making room so that rescued pets can stay in their hometowns, increasing the chances that they will be reunited with their owners, who are displaced themselves, said Kenny Lamberti, vice president of the companion animals department of the Humane Society of the United States.


“The priority is keeping the rescued pets with their families,” Lamberti said.

Animal rescuers, he said, are acting on lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina, when abandoned animals were turned away from shelters that became too full and were not allowed in many human evacuation centers. Back then, volunteers from other states, though well-intentioned, took stranded pets with them to their home clinics, making it difficult for owners to find them, said Lamberti, who adopted a Katrina-displaced pitbull-mix he named Rubin Hurricane Carter.

On Friday, Emancipet, a low-cost veterinary clinic in a strip mall on southeast Houston’s Wayside Drive, became a feline way station when the big rig from the Humane Society pulled up with 30 cats from Dickinson and League City near the coast that were being relocated to Seattle after those towns flooded.

The clinic was transformed into a veritable kitty triage center, an assembly line of care in which the cats were weighed and examined before being placed in cages outfitted with litter boxes and toys. They would all be spayed or neutered and microchipped as needed at Emancipet before they headed northwest.

“Six-point-nine pounds,” one of the technicians said, weighing a dark gray cat before giving it a hug.

“She’s a girl!” Dr. Adrian Knowles said, laughing, after getting a good look at the cat whose papers said it was named Buck. “Check the genders, people.”

Magan Gonzalez, a recovery technician, left, and Dr. Adrian Knowles examine a cat at the Emancipet clinic in Houston.
(Hailey Branson-Potts / Los Angeles Times)

Emancipet took in 13 cats from the municipal animal shelter in League City, a town that was hard-hit by flooding.

Kim Schoolcraft, the League City shelter’s animal services manager, said her facility had taken in about 35 cats and dogs since the storm hit. A third of them had been reunited with their families, and one cat, who was brought in with facial injuries, died of hypothermia, she said.

It’s been a “massive effort” to move animals to and from the facility, which has offered to house the claimed pets of displaced families for a month without charge, she said.

Friday was the first day back to work for the staff at Emancipet. When Chief Executive Amy Mills, who is based in Austin, walked in, she had tears in her eyes and hugged each worker.

“I’m so glad you’re OK,” she said.

As they waited for the cats to arrive, the staff traded stories about their Harvey experiences, including the tale of one employee who spent a night in her RAV4 in the middle of a flooded road.

They’re all used to storm warnings on the Gulf Coast. They hadn’t realized this would be a disaster.


The clinic workers considered themselves extremely lucky to have been spared flooding of their own homes and injury. But they hadn’t expected to be stuck in their homes for days on end, often without electricity.

They joked about the “Hurricane Harvey diet,” scrounged from whatever’s left in the pantry: a can of green beans, some ravioli, crackers.

Knowles, 26, the lead surgeon, said she had been at home for about four days when, on Wednesday, she looked outside and it wasn’t raining.

“It was like, ‘I’m going! I’m going outside!’” she said. When she got to a grocery store, there was an hourlong line out the door, and it wrapped around the entire inside of the store. She got in the line and popped down aisles as it progressed. She had a bad hankering for ice cream, and she scored some.

The others had similar experiences. Signs limiting your purchases of eggs, milk and water. The mad rush for bread.

Knowles, who moved to Houston from Florida a month ago, said she had survivor’s guilt. Family and friends from across the country have called nonstop after seeing harrowing video of flooding on the news. She feels bad when she tells them she’s fine, knowing so many people lost everything.


It wasn’t until she saw Highway 288, her route to work, turned into a lake on live TV that it sunk in for her that she really was living in the middle of this disaster.

“The feeling you get when you watch TV and you get on Facebook and see ‘Pray for Houston’ and you realize that’s you — it’s jarring,” Knowles said.

Amber Lozano, an assistant surgery technician, had been anxious, too, safe and comfortable at home but trapped by flooded roads and unable to lend a hand.

When she could finally get out on Wednesday, she picked up two dozen cats from a local shelter and drove them to Austin to make room for displaced animals.

“It was good to just be able to do something,” she said.

Mills, the Emancipet CEO, said it meant a lot to the staff to be working with the relocated cats.

“Today has been awesome,” she said. “It’s the culmination of a lot of worry and wondering how to be useful.”


She knows there’s a hard slog ahead with animal recovery efforts. Public health officials say the standing water left behind by the storm will bring lots of mosquitoes, which transmit heartworms to dogs. Mills is already working to get grants for heartworm medication.

And she knows the rescues will go on for months. More relocated dogs and cats will be coming through the Emancipet clinic, she said.

Someone half-jokingly asked if they’d take in alligators. The staff laughed nervously.

Twitter: @haileybranson


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