After Harvey, a perfect storm of animal lifesaving in Harris County, Texas
It may not sound like a recipe for creating a no-kill community: a municipal animal shelter with a save rate of just 52 percent, an annual intake of 25,000 and a facility designed to care for less than half that number. And then, the worst natural disaster to hit the U.S. since Katrina. What community would want to face those odds?
It turns out that when that community is Harris County, Texas, the odds are definitely in your favor.
Harris County is the home of Houston, and the story of that region’s response to Hurricane Harvey in 2017 is familiar to everyone — including the extraordinary efforts by municipal shelters, rescue organizations, volunteers, transporters, veterinarians and animal lovers to make sure not one animal who could be saved was lost to floodwaters or their aftermath.
Best Friends had a relationship with Harris County before that disaster hit. We’d begun working with the Harris County Animal Shelter director, Dr. Michael White, and his team in 2016 as part of our national campaign to Save Them All and end the killing in shelters in this country by 2025.
We had done an analysis of their lifesaving resource needs, which we delivered to them at the end of 2016. Dr. White, Danielle Macicek (the shelter operations administrator) and the shelter staff were eager to consider new ideas, and invited Best Friends to advise them on improving adoptions and operations. As part of that process, they got permission to implement a community cat pilot program with Houston Pets Alive (HPA) and Friends for Life, which had just launched when the hurricane struck.
And that’s when we saw what Harris County was truly capable of.
In that moment of extreme crisis, they emerged as heroes. They took the initiative at every step, most notably when Harris County Veterinary Public Health communications specialist Kerry McKeel put out a powerful plea to the media, bringing in TV cameras to do a live broadcast. It drew attention to the plight of pets caught in the floodwaters, and helped to make it a national story.
Harris County was also instrumental in securing NRG Arena as a location for the Best Friends Pet Reunion Pavilion. The arena provided a safe haven for displaced pets to get needed care until they could be reunited with their families or adopted into new homes if no one came forward. About 1,600 dogs and cats came through Best Friends’ Houston rescue and reunion operation.
After this incredible collaboration, an even deeper relationship grew between the shelter and Best Friends. Its impact is probably best symbolized by the fact that we have two embedded staff, Lauren Miller and Lauren LaPlace, currently running the community cat program out of a room where the shelter used to perform cat euthanasia — something that’s no longer needed, thanks to the program.
We’ve sent other Best Friends staffers to work with them this year, two weeks at a time, modeling our approach by getting into the trenches and helping out with animal handling, signage and animal access for interested adopters (and even cleaning kennels). A Best Friends employee and lifesaving mentor, Amy Kohlbecker, is currently working in the Harris County shelter to support the continued improvement of kennel care and adoption programming, as well as the launch of relinquishment prevention and return-to-field services.
Over Memorial Day weekend this year, Kerry McKeel once again proved that Harris County has what it takes. In response to a huge influx of animals, she reached out to the media and the public for help, resulting in 547 adoptions in just two days. They also joined us for a three-day, fee-waived adoption event June 8-10 in celebration of Best Friends Day.
All of us at Best Friends want to celebrate Harris County’s achievement and dedication to change. At every turn, they have not hesitated to ask for advice, implement changes and proactively identify opportunities for growing their lifesaving capacity even more. Not only did they take their shelter from a 52 percent save rate two years ago to 86.9 percent so far this year, they’ve proven that change is possible anywhere with the right spirit, and when leaders like Dr. White are open to collaboration, new ideas and engagement with the community.
That said, I was talking to Dr. White recently and he is not quite ready for congratulations. There is still an urgent need for support and there are still lives on the line every day, especially as summer and kitten season are upon us. Keeping a focus on the lives that still need to be saved is what will help get them to no-kill.
The future looks even brighter. The Best Friends partnership has now expanded to include a coalition of 16 Houston area organizations, including Harris County and BARCS, the city of Houston’s animal control agency.
Together, we will Save Them All.
Chief regional programs officer
Best Friends Animal Society