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Natural disasters and the no-kill movement

It has been more than 50 days since Best Friends deployed rescue, sheltering and transport teams to the Houston area in the devastating wake of Hurricane Harvey. To date, more than 1,600 dogs and cats have been helped through an effort that has engaged every corner of the organization and that has been supported so generously by members, friends, volunteers and the public as a whole. And that lifesaving continues today, as we work to find foster homes and adopters for the hundreds of animals still displaced from that disaster.

There is another equally important lifesaving story that emerged in the aftermath of the storm: the story of how the principles of no-kill get applied in emergency situations like Hurricane Harvey. It is our belief that a common standard of ethics should be upheld by all rescue agencies in disasters, as well as in day-to-day operations. That standard of ethics prioritizes the reunion of displaced pets with their families and guarantees a safe landing in a new adoptive home for every pet who is not able to be reunited.

It’s a sad fact that standard protocol for many animal agencies is for their staff to risk life and limb to get an animal out of harm’s way, only to immediately relinquish that animal to a shelter, where that dog or cat might be killed after a nominal hold period, sometimes as short as three days. Often, there is no attempt to reunite the pet with his or her family first, and certainly three days would not be long enough to do it. It raises the question of what good it did to rescue the animal in the first place.

It is uncharacteristic of Best Friends to call out another animal organization. Putting an end to bickering within animal welfare is at the center of our collaborative philosophy. In fact, only three times in our history have we publicly said something negative about another organization.

But that third time happened in the early days of the response to Hurricane Harvey. In a petition supported by more than 118,000 people, we called upon the city of Houston’s lead animal agency, the Houston SPCA, to commit to those lifesaving no-kill principles in the aftermath of disasters, including:

  • Minimum 30-day stray hold so families can reunite with their pets
  • Proactive pursuit by rescue groups of families and reunion of all pets displaced by a natural disaster
  • A clear, transparent operation that offers an appropriate standard of care
  • A guarantee for a positive outcome for all animals rescued
  • Sharing of raw data so that the above points can be audited and confirmed by interested parties

The outpouring of public support for the principles put forward proves once again that people support no-kill philosophies, which are important in disasters, and in everyday life. There are still nearly 5,500 dogs and cats killed in shelters every single day, just because they don’t have safe places to call home. And that is no less a tragedy. Every community should be working toward saving these animals, just as we fight to save the ones who are rescued from hurricanes. A growing number of no-kill organizations — and more than 400 no-kill cities across the country — are guided by this ethic every day. It’s what the public expects, and what every reasonable and compassionate animal advocate should strive to realize.
Rocky, one of the dogs rescued after Hurricane Harvey

We are committed to pursuing the points we raised in our petition as a national standard for animal welfare agencies during and after a disaster response. It should become our norm as a society, simply because the animals deserve it.

This is part and parcel of our commitment to end an even greater tragedy: Around two million dogs and cats are still killed in shelters every year.

Best Friends and our members are leading the nation to end killing in shelters by 2025. To reach this goal, we will need the help and participation of organizations and individuals in every city, county and state across the country. We need them to approach this tragedy with the same urgency they would if an earthquake, fire or flood were threatening. We encourage you to expect and request this level of compassion in your own local communities.

Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society Julie Castle
CEO
Best Friends Animal Society