Harvey’s Heroes: Stories of Courage, Selflessness and Love
Updated: Aug 25, 2022
Stories by Mara Soloway
Photography by Robyn Arouty
First published in Houston PetTalk October 2017
THE NEW MODEL FOR PET CARE IN A NATURAL DISASTER
During Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, a different type of first responder took charge to save lives - the lives of family pets. Because animals were allowed in the shelters at the GRB and NRG, area and national veterinarians volunteered their life-saving skills.
Dr. Katie Eick, DVM, owner of South by South Vets, and her staff were heavily involved with coordinating the volunteer effort from the beginning until the close of both shelters. She made her way to the GRB on Monday with all the inventory from her mobile clinic and set up a vet table and started treating dogs. “We got more supplies as other veterinarians were able to drive in. The drug companies generously gave us every medication we could need,” Eick said. A video interview with Eick at the GRB on a vet blog prompted offers to help from vets nationwide. To help organize the volunteer effort, she worked with Mike Rosenbaum at Trans4mative to set up www.harveyvolunteervets.com so other vets could learn how to best help.
The total animal count at GRB is estimated at 900-1000, with about 400 at NRG. Luckily, vets mostly provided routine care. Eick feels that the effort ran smoothly considering this scale of effort has never been done before, and she said that has to do with Friends for Life and BARC. “Salise Shuttlesworth, the director of Friends for Life, was there from the very beginning at GRB getting that shelter set up. Her efforts were amazing and helped to set the stage for this new model that can be reproduced in any disaster,” Eick said.
Eick feels people would not have come to the shelter if they weren't allowed to bring their animals. “Otherwise, we might have had more terrible stories. For many of the people we met, their animals are their family. And they were not going to leave them.”
SADNESS, ANGER, RELIEF, JOY
The emotional highs and lows of being involved in animal rescue were strongly felt during Hurricane Harvey for members of Houston K911 Rescue. Group members rescued two litter mates on Saturday night in the Fifth Ward. The female puppy had a broken jaw. “We wanted to get that dog in to a vet as soon as possible. No dog should be out there fending for itself much less one who is hurting and at risk of drowning,” said director Anna Barbosa.
They drove her to the veterinary clinic at Texas A&M to see a specialist, but the news was not good: her injuries were old and the break hadn't healed properly rendering it unfixable; eating would always be problematic for her. “We had to make the heartbreaking decision to let her go,” Barbosa said. Fortunately, her littermate is in a foster home, well fed and well loved.
After the flood, group members were looking for stray dogs in the Patterson/Simonton area. They found two donkeys tied to a pole swimming in water up to their noses. Katie Wing was able to untie them and walk them to higher ground. They found Jemma tied to a porch but with only two of her puppies; the others likely drown.
Houston K911 members gathered about 20 dogs from Houston's south side, including a German Shepherd who had to have surgery on her tail that had been bitten off by a horse; she also had mastitis so badly, puppies couldn't feed. Thankfully the owner surrendered her.
Animal welfare during a flood is now high on people’s radar. If evacuation without your dogs is unavoidable, people are advised to at least untie or unchain them so they can try to save themselves.
Houston K91 saved hundreds of dogs that now have adoptive homes. Post-Harvey, the rescue group will be focusing on a spay and neuter program that many area residents have asked for.
COORDINATING EFFORTS AND SAVING LIVES
More than 1000 dogs and cats found a better life through the work of Rescued Pets Movement (RPM) during and after Hurricane Harvey, including 500 in one week.
After delivering three truckloads of crates and other supplies to the George R. Brown Convention Center despite the rising waters, the group began coordinating with BARC and numerous rescue organizations, including sending animals back with national groups for adoption. RPM director Laura Carlock joined about 30 people at BARC to strategize the best way to take care of all animals in this phenomenal effort.
“We had to be sure that the mandated stray hold process was enforced for the animals that were already in the pounds and shelter and for the animals that were coming in – they could be owned by someone,” Carlock said. The first focus was getting all the animals in the shelter pre-Harvey rescued.
Once BARC reopened, RPM began working with national rescues facilitating load-ups from BARC onto vans. It helped the first group to come, Paws Chicago, load up 38 animals. RPM also helped several other organizations such as Charlottesville SPCA from Virginia, St. Francis CARE from Murphysboro, Illinois, and Louie’s Legacy, which took three full vans of pets to Cincinnati.
Weeks after Harvey, RPM is continuing to coordinate efforts by national rescues. to take animals from BARC for adoption. RPM is also working with Houston Pets Alive and its efforts at NRG to find rescue groups to take pets. “RPM was in a good position to help with transporting, 50 we were able to get so many animals placed with those amazing organizations. We had about 350 animals that we sent in 12 cargo vans to Colorado to 21 different organizations we had worked with previously. It was our biggest transport yet,” Carlock said.
“We won't turn anybody away, even if they can only take a small number of animals,” Carlock said.
THE CAPTAIN GOES DOWN WITH THE SHIP
When the water in yard rose several feet, Lisa First didn’t concern herself with the belongings in her Alvin home: she and her husband Jesse Cadena have 14 dogs in their care, including several with special needs. The dogs had to get out of the 8 inches of water that filled their home. She blankets and crates on them. She had to frail 18-year-old, Hot Dog.
Friends had encouraged them to leave, even offering to send a cattle trailer, but with so many dogs it was unrealistic. Plus, they were prepared with a generator and plenty of supplies. “There’s no way we were going to leave if it meant leaving our dogs. It would never occur to us to do anything but rescue our dogs,” she said.
It’s the caregiver in her. As an RN, she knows how to handle medical emergencies. As a foster with Joyrides Rescue, she’s helped many dogs. Of the 14 she has, 12 are hers and two are fosters with Joyrides. “Several of them have some issues, so they’re a part of our family now,” First said. Three of her dogs have previously endured such trauma that they don’t want to go outside.
First also volunteers with Barrio Dogs to educate elementary students about dogs, including proper care. Her dogs Pinto and Levi are program ambassadors. “At first they think a Pit Bull is horrible. Once they meet Levi with only one eye, their whole thinking changes,” she said.
Some good news has come from all this distress: two of her dogs got adopted through Joyrides. Her niece in Massachusetts collected donations, which Joyrides is distributing to Houston area rural shelters and bringing dogs to New England for adoption.
“Although I lost most of my possessions, I’m one of the lucky ones because I’m not out looking for my dogs, First said.
SQUIRRELS AND OWLS AND PELICANS, OH MY
The Houston SPCA’s Wildlife Center of Texas (WCT) feit the effects of Hurricane Harvey’s winds on Friday before landfall. Area residents brought in almost 50 animals then. More than 500 sodden animals eventually would be in rehab at the WCT. One family watched as a momma opossum carrying her babies struggled to swim. Three babies come off as the current pushed the momma onward. Family members went out in the storm, got the babies and brought them to the center.
Other rehab patients were baby squirrels, pelicans, a magnificent frigate bird, screech owls, a baby beaver, a fawn, and an alligator snapping turtle that weighed about 90 pounds and was estimated to be 70-100 years old.
Approximately six staff and hundreds of volunteers took care of animals and responded to more than 1,300 calls. One caller, Bryce Zores, found a submerged baby rabbit in Buffalo Bayou on Sunday morning. Although those around her told her not to touch it, she didn’t listen and began pulling off the fire ants that completely covered the bunny.
She took him home and wrapped him in towels that she heated in the dryer. Zornes doesn’t actually know if the animal was a male. I just wanted to name it Harvey the Rabbit.”
For almost five days, she kept Harvey warm and fed him grass, spinach and walnuts. He even drank water from a straw. When she set him free at Memorial Park, he sprinted off without looking back.
Sharon Schmalz, WCT's executive director, appreciates that people in Houston area care enough for wildlife to bring on average 10,000 animals a year to the WCT.
“The spirit of people is amazing. They took time to care for a living animal during a storm. People whose houses were flooded were thanking us for having a place to bring animals,” Schmalz said. “We were thanking them for making the effort considering the situation they are in.”
FAIR AND BALANCED RESCUE EFFORTS
Although Maurice Gassiott, 25, is partial to Pit Bulls, when the opportunity to rescue people and animals arose with Harvey’s floodwaters, he was totally on board, literally and figuratively. He headed out on Saturday after hearing about a Pit Bull on top of a care in rising waters. The owner of Gray Wolf Canine Rehabilitation knew he could help the dog. He works with Pit Bull rescues and animal shelters using his pack of balanced dogs, mostly Pit Bulls, to help aggressive dogs learn how to behave.
When Gassiott got to the flooding neighborhood, someone offered to paddle him to the dog, but the strong current turned the canoe around. With that effort on hold, he turned his attention to nearby people in their homes. Like many spontaneous rescue events, three men from Lufkin, Texas pulled up with a boat. They all agreed to help people first, then the dog. “We carried a gentlemen and his
mother to dry land. Then we helped a family and two rabbits.”
When they had a chance to look for the dog, the address was wrong. Attempts at getting a correct address through Facebook didn’t pan out. (The dog was eventually rescued.) An American Bulldog named Chuck had some good luck, getting rescued by some people in a boat that Gassiott had met earlier. He put out the call on Facebook for a temporary foster home, and a good friend volunteered.
For several days, he worked with a team that picked up stray dogs in the Missouri City area and took them to Austin Pets Alive stationed at Katy Mills Mall. Of course Gassiott ended up taking the only Pit Bull; he also took a bonded pair that he calls JAY-Z and Beyoncé.
Gassiott admits he likes dangerous situations. He works with aggressive dogs for a living, skating each morning with his dogs pulling him upwards of 30 miles an hour. “If someone tells me it can’t be done, I'm like, ‘yeah it can.’ "
HARRIS COUNTY IS ANIMAL FRIENDLY
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has had all kinds of pets over the years; he's even gotten up close to a porcupine and rescued a small alligator on his East Texas property by scaring away larger ones with a broom; the alligator named Ollie by a granddaugher swims up to see Emmett when he visits the cabin.
Emmett wasn’t county judge when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, but he has carried forward the lessons he learned. “All of us saw what was happening to people, and it wasn't just in the shelters. i remember seeing elderly people being loaded on the buses to come over here. They were being told they couldn't bring their pets so they wouldn’t get on the bus. They stayed behind,” he said.
Harris County opened the emergency shelter at NRG Center accepting pets in cages from the beginning. “As long as I've been County Judge, it's always been a given that pets are included. Whenever we give our annual hurricane update, we say to make sure your pets are taken care of, too. If you're going to evacuate, you've got to have the crates and all the things necessary to make sure your pet can survive.”
Emmett greatly appreciates the mindset that local nonprofit BakerRipley brought to its operation of the emergency shelter. “Angela Blanchard, CEO, told me that they don't treat people like evacuees — they treat them like guests. That mindset is totally different. People arrive who have been in floodwaters, and somebody takes their bags and welcomes them. It's totally different than standing in a line to be processed,” he said.
Separate from the evacuee shelter at NRG is Best Friends Rescue's operation of the Pet Reunion Pavillion, which in mid-September had about 390 dogs and 117 cats on a 30-day wait hold for their owners to find them. Michael White, DVM, Director of Veterinary Public Health for Harris County, said that after that time period, both the county and Best Friends are committed to finding adoptive homes for them around the state and the nation.
MODESTY IS HIS BEST POLICY
Sterling Bailey is like many generous people: he is modest about it. Ask him about the efforts of his Bailey Animal Rescue during and after Hurricane Harvey, and he will shift the conversation to groups he worked with: Sonoma’s Haven, West Houston Animal Rescue and Houston K911 Rescue (see story above).
When the Brazos River was rising near her Simonton property for the second time this year, Leticia Hess of Sonoma's Haven had to find homes for 10 dogs. Bailey took four and foster homes were found for the rest by K911 and Stephanie Polk of West Houston Animal Rescue. Hess then saved three pit bulls from flooding and, with transit from a California swift water rescue team that took several hours, she rescued four dogs and fed many cats and chickens.
Claire Hogenson found fosters for four of these dogs. Bailey provided food, Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR), and vet care through the accounts he has at veterinary and emergency clinics.
Gina Harris, a vet tech at Nottingham Animal Clinic, helped rescue a pit bull with her two malnourished puppies that were all bleeding from sarcoptic mange. She rescued other dogs and five cats, including one kitten who received care under Bailey’s account at Vergi Emergency Hospital.
And Bailey? Between his house and kennel building he had 13 dogs and 14 cats he'd rescued when Harvey hit. One of his main points of focus is a part of Old Katy. Bailey was unable to feed the feral cat community there for about two days. With the help of CAP’s TNR program, he has worked to reduce its numbers in half to about 50 cats. He also cares for many stray and tied-up dogs and thinks they all survived. He took one to Nottingham for general care and to treat a skin infection from the nasty waters and replaced one of the Igloo dog houses that he previously provided and supplied food.
“I'm fortunate I can do it,” Bailey said. “I couldn’t turn my back on all these animals.”