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Horror Turns to Action

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, this diverse country became a community—and animal advocates were no exception

When we talk about community, we often fall back on a popular catchphrase: Think globally, act locally. But a tragedy on the scale of last September’s events can turn that idea on its head. After the attacks, communities across the country started thinking across the vast geography of the United States, as though the tragedies had happened in their own neighborhoods. And their action has been global: an outpouring of financial and emotional support the likes of which has never been seen before. As search and rescue dogs combed the rubble of the World Trade Center and shelters worked to get friends and neighbors to check on the pets of the missing and dead, this new community set out to help their neighbors thousands of miles away.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Len Selkurt was in his car listening to the radio when he heard about the search and rescue dogs at work in the ruins. As the executive director of the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission, Selkhurt makes a living of being concerned about animals—but this time he was thinking about how to help animals halfway across the country. “I started thinking that with all those people who had died, there are going to be a lot of homeless pets and they’re going to be dealing with that on top of everything else,” he says. “So when I came back to the shelter, I said, ‘Hey, let’s make red-white-and-blue ribbons, sell them for a buck, and we’ll send all the proceeds to the New York shelter to help the animals there.’ And I was thinking we’d make, like, $200 or something.”

Surprise! The group had pulled in over $15,000 by October, and was already sending checks to the New York Center for Animal Care and Control. “When we started the campaign, we had people lined up over two blocks away from our front door who stood in line for hours to get the ribbons,” says Selkurt. “And they said they were glad we were doing something to help the animals, but they also wanted a memento to remember this whole thing and pull together, and that’s why the ribbons were great.”

Animal groups from Washington, D.C., to Washington state have pulled together to raise funds for their New York neighbors, whether their efforts have been through actual campaigns or simply through Web page links that let people know how to donate to the New York relief efforts.

In Seattle, Christine Titus, volunteer programs manager for Seattle Animal Control, coordinated a team donation drive between the agency and the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), another local animal organization. The two groups ended up with 2.5 tons of supplies, and Titus and a PAWS representative flew to New York to present the massive volume of goodwill to the Humane Society of New York—and also to learn about how to cope with unexpected tragedies and disasters. “One of the things I am responsible for is incorporating our 500 volunteers and foster care people into our own disaster plan, so I felt there was just a multitude of reasons for me to go and learn and help,” Titus says.

In the wake of such a tragedy, even the simplest tasks became a challenge: The folks in Seattle found it hard to get in touch with the shelters in New York to find out where to bring their donations and who was organizing the relief effort. Once they got through, and after coordinating free shipping through Fed-Ex, they flew to meet the truck full of supplies at the shelter. “The people at the New York shelter were so sweet to us; they were just amazed, they kept saying, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you came all the way from Seattle!’ ” says Titus. But, she says, it was just a natural thing to do. “I thought I was bringing supplies, but I think I was really bringing good wishes and support, too.”

One donation in particular caught the eye of the workers at the New York shelter, says Titus. “As we were unpacking the truck, we found this large paper shopping bag, and you could see that some elderly woman had written this whole note on the side about how these toys had belonged to her cat and she wanted someone in the disaster to have her cat’s toys,” says Titus. “The people in New York were so moved that they saved the bag.”

Titus spent several days at the humane society, trying to help out the staff as they coped with the combined exhaustion of grief and long hours. “Everybody who came in had a story,” she says. “And there were animals coming in with upper respiratory infection, people coming in who no longer had jobs and couldn’t pay for veterinary care and didn’t have money for pet food, and we were like, ‘Here, take the food, we’ve got food—come back when you need more.’ ”

It was incredibly gratifying, says Titus, to be able to help in even this small way as the humane society, the New York Center for Animal Care and Control, and the ASPCA continued massive rescue and recovery efforts. As a native New Yorker, Titus could tell the city had been fundamentally and permanently changed. “Any part of New York you were in, people were grieving. ... You would go to the corner, and there would be little kids selling lemonade and cookies for the fire department, and then you’d go to the grocery store and they’d ask if you wanted to give your change to the Red Cross. When you take the subway, all the pictures of the missing are there, and then in the park, there are all the memorials,” she says. Everywhere there was evidence of great sorrow, but also evidence of the city and neighbors from all corners of the globe coming together to help out. “You could not go anywhere without seeing that everyone has been affected,” Titus says. “People are moving forward with their lives, but they’re moving forward with a heavy heart.”

 

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