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No More Losses

© San Diego Humane Society and SPCA
Tanya Andrews and Sandi.

Standing in the agility yard of the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA, on the brink of being reunited with her beloved dog, Tanya Andrews turned her back on the whole scene for a moment.

Shelter employees had told Andrews which door her cocker spaniel, Sandi, would be walking out of—and had prepared her for the fact that some dogs, disoriented and still traumatized by their experiences, don’t immediately recognize their owners.

When she heard where her friend would be staging his grand entrance, Andrews made an about-face from the door—a move that surprised the staff.

“Her dog came out—it was the right animal—and jumped all over her,” says Mark Goldstein, the organization’s president. “After all the emotion, she mentioned that in flying out here, 50 percent of her was excited to be reunited with her dog. But 50 percent of her, she explained, had convinced herself it wasn’t her dog.”

Andrews did what she had to do to protect herself, she told the shelter staff, “because she couldn’t stand another loss,” says Goldstein. “She did not have the strength to look at that door and watch the wrong dog come out.”

The staff of San Diego Humane reunited nearly half the animals they took in from the Gulf Coast, including one who didn’t instantly recognize his owner, a woman who’d been separated from her three pets after the family spent 18 hours on a rooftop together.

Waiting in a “habitat room” in the adoption center, the woman “fell apart” when the dog cowered in a corner after entering the room, says Goldstein. “She was devastated. But about five minutes into it, you could see the light go off,” he says. “And the dog went running across the room, climbed in her lap, climbed on her shoulder— this was about a 45-pound dog—turned towards the other door and, whenever anyone now walked in that door, this dog would growl at them.”

Whenever it was feasible for the owners to make the trip, the San Diego Humane Society paid their way to California so they could reunite with their dogs in person. The organization put the owners up in grand style, paying for their flights, hotels, food, and even visits to area attractions.

“We wanted them to feel like somebody really cared about them,” says Goldstein. “It was profound to see how much they appreciated it.”

The reunions themselves were often the culmination of many hours of research on the part of SDHS staff, who combed through paperwork, searched Petfinder, sent letters to New Orleans addresses, and contacted FEMA, the Red Cross, and local Louisiana governments in search of owners. One resident found through these methods was the owner of a lab named Katie who, with SDHS’s help, had successfully beaten a bout with parvo and was able to return to a single mom and her disabled child who considers the dog “his life.”

The San Diego Humane Society raised and spent $480,000 on Katrina rescue, relief, and reunions. Goldstein is sometimes asked why his organization spent such a large portion on the relatively few animals brought back to his region of California. “We’re investing in the human-animal bond,” he says. “An example of the profit that will now pay off is that, I believe, our government at a local, state, and federal level realizes that animals have to be taken into consideration in disaster planning. And I think if we had not invested our emotions and our resources into it, that story would not have been told as clearly.”

 

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