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The Shelter Shuttle

The Katrina evacuees arriving in Austin, Texas, last September had left behind their homes and most of their belongings—but many still had their pets. So many of them, in fact, that as the convention center began to fill with people and animals, space simply ran out. The city of Austin and the Austin Humane Society made a decision: the humane society would hold evacuees’ animals at their facility.

Joe Navis, a Katrina evacuee who stayed at the convention center in Austin, Texas, visits with his pets at their temporary home, the Austin Humane Society.
But people found it difficult to part with their furry family members after everything they’d endured. “It was just all they had,” says executive director Frances Jonon. “So it was really emotional to talk to these folks … and reassure them that we’re here to help, and [that] we are going to take care of your animal and give you an opportunity to get yourselves together and figure out what you need to do, while not having to manage caring for your animal.”

One family Jonon met had evacuated with a bird, two dogs, and a cat. Swimming to safety while the larger dog paddled alongside them, they carried the small dog and toted the cat in a backpack and the bird in a cage. “And all they had brought with them was dog food,” says Jonon. “That was the extent of their belongings.”

Austin Humane knew it would be best for these pets and their people to be together, and that had been the original plan. With animals now housed off-site, the city suggested shuttles to transport guardians between the convention center and the shelter. And it worked: everyone who wanted to visit got the chance to see their pet. Some evacuees, when faced with the choice of standing in line for a shower (likely a precious commodity at the hurricane shelter) or a line for the shelter shuttle, chose their pets first.

When they arrived, the shelter was ready. “We’d play host as best we could—make sure that they had whatever they needed and set them up in a private area where they could visit with their animals,” says Jonon. “We got to know many of the evacuees personally and [got] to know their pets, and it was really quite something.”

The emotional reunions affected everyone. “There were a lot of tears: a lot of tears from the owners, a lot of tears from the staff,” says Jonon. Some animals, fearful and fractious at the shelter, calmed down immediately in the presence of their families.

Evacuees were overjoyed, and many felt sheer relief at seeing their pets again after saying goodbye at the convention center. “I think for many of them, their pet was going to an unknown [entity],” says Jonon. “I think some of them were afraid that they were never going to see their animal ever again.”

The shelter eventually would house 100 evacuee pets in a large auditorium, in what was truly a cooperative effort. The city provided vehicles and drivers for the shuttle; veterinarians from the Texas Veterinary Medical Association provided medical care; volunteers helped care for adoptable animals while adoptions were temporarily halted; and the ASPCA provided extensive assistance in the shelter’s hurricane work.

Shuttle buses finished their runs after a week or so, but that didn’t stop some evacuees from making visits. Red Cross and other “people” volunteers at the convention center made personal connections with some evacuees and gave them rides to Austin Humane.

However they made it to the shelter, the guardians appreciated the time with their pets. “They were just so relieved and grateful,” says Jonon. “It was nice to be able to do something and make them feel good in a time when there weren’t [many] things to feel good about.”

 

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