Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What is Animal Rescue: Part 1

We talk a lot about Animal Rescue and the various efforts to Rescue and Save the Animals (yes, you can usually hear the caps).  Right now we are working hard to get the Florida Animal Rescue Act passed by our State Legislature and save lives.  But we have to wonder some times; what is Rescue, how does it work, how should it work, and what are we Rescuing animals from in the first place?

There seem to be two major segments of Animal Rescue out there; disaster response rescue and everyday companion animal rescue.  Although Rescue groups often deal with both faces of this challenge, they are two distinct issues.  Let’s look at disaster response first and try to get a clearer picture of our mission.

Last year North Carolina and Virginia were hammered by Hurricane Irene.  New York and the rest of New England faced a once-in-a-century storm.  There was the outbreak of tornados in the Birmingham/Tuscaloosa Alabama area, a tornado that devastated a good swath of Joplin, Missouri, tornados in New England, and the creeping disaster that was the flooding along the Mississippi Delta. These displaced and took many human lives, and likewise impacted animal lives, both companion and commercial.  During each of these disasters phone and ‘Net lines were buzzing with concerned folks desperate to “Save the Animals.” And saving was done, and will continue to be done, by many dedicated ground teams, shelters, shelter support staff, and volunteers.

But we have to be clear what we mean when we want to “Save the Animals”? Save the animals from what? For what? Which animals?  We intend good things, but what is our true mission?

Let me give a quick example of good intentions versus a defined mission. During the early ground operations in New Orleans after Katrina and Rita one of our volunteers brought in a baby alligator to be “saved”. The alligator was about two and a half feet long. It was captured in the rubble of an apartment complex, just off Lake Ponchartrain. 

The conversation went pretty much like this:

Me:  “Bless your heart*, I appreciate your concern, but what is that you have?”

Vol:  “An alligator.  A baby alligator.”

Me: “Ok.  Tell me-where are we?”

Vol: “New Orleans.”

Me: “Which is in….”

Vol: “Uh, Louisiana?”

Me: “And where do alligators live?”

Vol: “In swamps…”

Me: “Swamps where?

Vol: “…Louisiana”

Me. “Exactly.  We are not saving alligators…THEY BELONG HERE. THERE IS NOTHING TO SAVE THEM FROM, except maybe their PARENTS.  PUT THAT BACK.  He (or she) will be just fine.  Trot across the parking lot to the levee, and put that fellow back in Lake Ponchartrain where he belongs.”

I know I hurt the poor volunteer’s feelings-they were just trying to “Save the Animals”. And in northern Illinois, or Michigan, or wherever the volunteer came from, alligators might need saving. But along the Gulf Coast we residents consider them pests. Large, prehistoric, small-dog-eating, golf course infesting pests. They are part of the local ecosystem, part of the natural world, part of (cue the Disney song) “the circle of liiiife…..! They don’t need saving. They belong here.

This was a case of unclear mission goals.  The volunteer with the alligator wanted to Save the Animals, but lacked an understanding of the specific parameters we were focused within.  Our mission after Katrina was to address companion animal issues-lost pets, endangered pets, abandoned and/or lost livestock.  We were not there to collect and “save” an entire ecosystem.

During disaster response, we must first understand what animals we are saving, and from what.  Typically there are two clear classes of animals we are interested in: companion animals (pets) and livestock/agricultural animals, most often horses, cattle, and barnyard fowl.

What are we saving them from?  Well, of course we are saving them from the immediate threat.  Drowning in floods, injured or dead from falling debris or trees, in the case of New Orleans the poisonous soup that it became when all the chemicals in factories and under people’s sinks merged together post-levee failure; the range of dangers for pets and livestock is tremendous.

These threats loom largest for those animals left behind by their owners.  We saw plenty of that in Katrina; families left their animals behind, leaving food and fresh water available, assuming that they would return to relatively secure homes and properties and to their animals in a day or three.  We know how badly that worked out now, with the levee failures and the complete closing of New Orleans for weeks.  One dog that I personally rescued had been trapped in his house for 49 days.  HE survived, but too many didn’t.  Drowned animals were commonplace.

So we save the animals, at least those that are not native-and perhaps some of those if they are injured-from injury, drowning, poisoning, and other immediate hazards.  We round them up, clean them up, dry them off, and give them wholesome food.  We tend to their wounds and begin to return them to gentle, positive companionship with humans.  We are indeed saving them from valid, clear threats.

But what are we saving them for?  For dispersal to well meaning people all over who want to also “Save the Animals” by opening their homes and hearts to these needy creatures?  Despite events that transpired after Katrina, the answer here is a resounding “NO”.  In a disaster response, our first and foremost goal and mission is to save these animals so they may be returned to their rightful owners.  We are not there to conduct a massive collect-and-adopt mission.  We are there to rescue and safeguard the animals at risk until such time as we, or other authorities, can identify and reunite the animals with their human families.  In a disaster response this reunification is our goal, our mission, our reason to exist, our lifeblood.  I can tell you personally that, when a family returns to a scene to find their home destroyed, their possessions scattered on the tide, their lives in ruin, the looks on their faces when they realize their pet is safe and cared for are worth every second of work and struggle.

But there is a caution that we must keep close to our hearts.  When we rescue these animals, they are only temporarily in our care.  We are their saviors, but not their keepers.  We have no authority or place determining if their owners are fit to have their animals back.

This situation came up during our post-Katrina response.  Well meaning, kind and concerned rescuers had issues with a number of things they saw.  These kind folks, first off, resented the owners for leaving their pets behind.  Too many people expressed to me their disgust at what they considered outright abandonment.  I even, at first, found it difficult to understand until I learned that most people had been told, or believed, that they would only be gone a brief time.  Residents of New Orleans, like many Gulf Coast communities, had evacuated before.  Most times they leave for one to three days and then are back at home, cleaning up and back on track.

In Katrina, an unpredicted element intruded.  The city was generally secure, with some middling damage, until the levees broke.  Houses that had been safe and dry were now underwater, as much as six to ten feet or more, depending on which neighborhood you were in.  The residents who fled, and those who stayed behind, never truly expected this to happen. 

The waters came in fast enough in some locations that we later found dinner dishes still on the tables, food on the stoves, lives interrupted in the middle of normality.  And we found animals drowned in houses, sometimes loose in the house, sometimes in crates and kennels, and too often accompanied by their owners.  In the home of one person who was apparently a hoarder, we found seventy two dead animals, dogs and cats, scattered around the house.  Some cats had even taken refuge in the attic, and then drowned trying to escape from the eaves as the water covered the roof.  Some animals were in attics, mute testament to their loyalty as they died in their owners’ laps.

But we found them, mostly unaccompanied, and rescuers were appalled.  How could these people leave their pets?  Why could they not fit a small dog into a car, or take their cat?  What physical possession could have been more important than their companion?

And some rescuers began trying to second guess the owners, trying to place their own values on the owners of the survivors.  Some animals were, frankly, not kept to the standards that many of us were accustomed to.  The animals were chained, tethered, or simply running loose.  The animals were not always groomed, were not always as friendly as they expected, were not kept….like our animals.  And some rescuers began making decisions as to whether the owners deserved their animals back.

This was, despite good intentions and sometimes legitimate outrage, simply wrong.  This was not the mission.  This was not their place.  We/they had no business making such decisions.  Good or bad, well intentioned or hopelessly clueless, the owners had every right to have their animals returned.

Situations like this are why we need close control of and accountability for rescuers in disaster responses.  The rescue mission must be narrowly defined; first, respond and collect all the animals that meet your mission goals-in the case of Katrina, companion and livestock animals.  Second, stabilize, house, identify and document all the animals you have.  Third, work fervently to return and reunite the animals with owners without removing them from the immediate area where they can be reasonable recovered.  And finally, if all else fails, THEN begin adopting/fostering/placing animals with new homes both in and out of the affected areas.

There are a few ways we can proactively design our responses to lessen the likelihood of mission drift.  We can pre-credential our responders, building a database of trained, qualified people who understand the issues we will face and the system within which they will function.  We can limit access to disaster areas to those credentialed and trained persons.  We can set out our mission goals and rules clearly from the outset, and have accountability measures in place.  We can set up receiving facilities designed for safe containment, immediate medical treatment, and behavioral assessment and management to ensure the animals are kept safe until they go home.  Finally we can document, advertise, and follow up on recovery locations to try and reunite pets and families long before we start shipping them out and away, sometimes to places where the owners may never find them again.  I feel that these are the basic requirements of disaster response and rescue for those who want to “Save the Animals”.

But disaster response is, almost by definition, the exception.  What about day to day rescuing of needy and discarded animals?  That subject is for next time.

* NOTE: Here in the South you hear people say "Bless your heart..." a lot.  That is not because they are all pious and well wishing.  In much of the Southern US, the phrase "Bless your heart" is code.  It means "Are you really that stupid?"  Of course, true Southerners are far too well mannered to straight out say that.  Thus, "Bless your heart".