How a Harvey Breakthrough Might Save Pets for Years to Come

A year ago, Houston pet owners risked it all to escape with the whole family during Harvey. Then a new kind of shelter came together to ensure pets and people could evacuate together.

By Morgan Kinney July 20, 2018 Published in the August 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

On the last Monday in August of last year, as her front yard gave way to rushing water, Regina Riddle knew it was time to bail on her East Houston rental trailer. “The San Jacinto River, from where we were at, is a good seven miles away,” Riddle remembers. “You know what? Where we were at was the San Jacinto River.”

This was day four of Harvey’s unrelenting rains, and hours had run together after a weekend indoors in her rural subdivision near C.E. King Parkway and Highway 90; Riddle’s adult daughter, Renaye, had cried and cried as she spent her birthday listening to rain pound the roof.

But there were no tears behind the purple rectangles of Riddle’s glasses as the retiree waded into the murky, rib-high waters alongside an ice chest holding a Staffordshire terrier and a plastic-bottomed cage stuffed with a rabbit and a guinea pig. More of the family—six others, all human—followed close behind.

Riddle counts herself among the majority of pet owners, about 80 percent, who say they’re as willing to risk their lives for their fur babies as for their human ones, hence this MacGyvered escape that included all the household’s animals. At least, all except for Riddle’s beloved Japanese bobtail, Feenixx.

The tailless, 9-year-old cat was Riddle’s born companion; they share a birthday, and Feenixx’s cuddles, she says, help with the pain from her lupus, an inflammatory autoimmune disease that attacks the joints. “I just knew from the first time that I laid eyes on her that she was mine,” says Riddle.

But when she tried to cage Feenixx to evacuate, the wild cat mewed and scratched and fought so fiercely, Riddle knew she couldn’t take her, especially to a shelter where strangers might try to mess with an animal that, she claims with a straight face, has a bobcat for a daddy. “She’s a survivor,” Riddle remembers saying as she left a pile of food high up on the Formica countertops just feet above the floodwaters lapping under the front door.

Regina Riddle with her cat, Feenixx

Image: Daniel Kramer

Now, with their backs to the trailer, the ragtag crew of 10—Riddle, her son, her daughter, her daughter’s boyfriend, her three grandchildren, and the three pets—pushed toward the main road, where Riddle, bolstered by a lifetime of Houston-bred hurricane wisdom, had instructed Renaye’s boyfriend to park a truck so it would remain high and dry.

Fences guided the way until someone spotted a water moccasin out of the corner of their eye, the family recoiling at what turned out to be a tapestry of snakes caught wriggling against the chain-link as water rushed by. That propelled the family double-time toward the truck, the 10- and 11-year-olds bobbing up and down on the men’s shoulders. But even that was a dead end; washed-out roads cut off every escape route as they looped around repeatedly in the vehicle.

Finally, a crew making the rescue rounds encountered them at a gas station and hoisted everyone into a single-engine fishing boat. The propeller scraped against cars parked below as they sped down the flooded road toward a nearby elementary-school-turned-shelter, where, before the family could even find dry clothes, Riddle discovered the sewage system had backed up, unleashing a stinking, inch-deep flood as terrible as the one she’d already escaped.

It took hours for METRO buses to evacuate everyone once more to another shelter, only to turn up on the doorstep of at-capacity facilities all across the southeast end of the city. Day faded into night. Riddle nodded off in her seat, shivering under the air-conditioning as their destination changed again and again.

The whoosh of an air brake signaled arrival outside the George R. Brown Convention Center just before dawn on Tuesday. The exhausted group clambered off the bus toward Exhibit Hall A, a space designated specifically for pet owners. Everyone, pets included, was registered by name, address, phone number, and, when applicable, breed, before they were tagged with matching hospital bands to ensure they stayed together. Sugar and Ruby, the guinea pig and the rabbit, were given brand-new, individual kennels. Volunteers offered to walk Balloo, the dog. Humans were handed shelter blankets and shown to bins of dry clothes.

Riddle hobbled to a trashcan to toss her shoes—still soaked with sewage from that first ill-fated pit stop—before making her way to a cot where she passed out head-to-pillow almost a full day after departing from her home with nothing more than her medication. This would be the grandmother’s first night sleeping beneath the buzzing, always-on exhibit hall lights, dreaming of Feenixx back at the trailer, dancing from perch to perch. 

Friends for Life director Salise Shuttlesworth and her team are working to share the lessons they learned during Harvey.

Image: Daniel Kramer

A couple of days earlier, Sunday, when officials first threw open the doors to the GRB as an emergency shelter, pet owners like Riddle washed up only to be turned away. Television cameras captured one line of waterlogged evacuees streaming into the exhibit halls while another huddled outside under narrow awnings, choosing the rain if it meant staying with their animals. Pets nested in whatever makeshift carriers their owners had grabbed before hopping into dinghies or dump trucks toward safety; one broadcast showed four Shih Tzu mixes pooled at the bottom of a galvanized trash can and a Chihuahua duo peeping from a plastic tub.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and Mayor Sylvester Turner made the call that evening to allow pets into the convention center, although a problem quickly emerged: Nobody had stopped to consider how the shelter would corral the menagerie of cats, dogs, chickens, birds, rabbits, rodents, squirrels, and at least one pig that ended up inside—no pets were turned away.

Late-night coordination between  officials at BARC, the city’s animal shelter, and Salise Shuttlesworth, director of the Heights-based Friends for Life no-kill adoption and rescue shelter, turned into a mad dash to establish order for hundreds of pets and their owners. “We realized that what had to happen was that we needed to set up a shelter within a shelter, and what was needed in terms of supplies was everything,” she says.

Shuttlesworth spent the night in the office of her Midtown home with the phone pressed to her ear, organizing drop zones and collection points for donations of dog food, kitty litter, leashes, crates, and every other supply imaginable. Friends for Life activated its volunteer network, which could readily apply that shelter’s standard operating procedures to the GRB. Volunteer veterinarians were summoned to offer medical services gratis, some traveling from as far away as Seattle. A friend of Shuttlesworth’s rushed from Atlanta to Austin and rented a car to drive to Houston so she could pitch in with changing kitty litter and washing soiled linens.

Within 24 hours, nearly 700 animals and their owners had been triaged, some receiving vet care for the first time. All pets were leashed or crated in provided kennels, with unorthodox pets receiving special accommodations (a chicken was housed in a pop-up tent). Volunteers would take the dogs across the street to relieve themselves at Discovery Green, while evacuees dove into byzantine FEMA paperwork. Owners kept their pets well-behaved, aside from the occasional nip or bark-off.

“We were changing the wheels on a car while it was going 100 mph,” says Evelyn Cutts, a Friends for Life volunteer who became Shuttlesworth’s second-in-command. “In every way, if something needed to be resolved, we’d figure it out.”

It’s a make-it-happen mentality Shuttlesworth demanded after parachuting onto the scene in New Orleans with another rescue group during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Thousands of animals were left behind as residents were rescued from shotgun homes barely peeking above the water. At the time, rescuers gave stranded residents an impossible ultimatum: Leave the dog behind or be left behind yourself. Even if someone managed to make it to a shelter with their pets, relief workers separated animals from their owners and corralled them nearby in massive, pets-only areas resembling feedlots.

Then, as thousands of refugees were evacuated from the New Orleans Superdome via a convoy of buses destined for the Astrodome, a police officer tore a small, snow-white dog from the hands of its 9-year-old owner. Like the shelters, the Houston-bound bus didn’t accept pets, and, according to a now infamous Associated Press report, the boy cried so hard and shouted “Snowball! Snowball!” so loudly, he collapsed and vomited. His father scooped him up and hurried onto the bus, fearing they might lose their ticket out of the disaster zone.

“We made about every mistake there was to make,” Shuttlesworth admits today. “We shipped animals out of state, separated animals from their families. There was only a 15 percent reunification rate of pets with their owners after Katrina.”

And this animal problem exacerbated a very human one: More than 40 percent of those who chose not to evacuate during Katrina did so because they refused to abandon their pets. Roughly 1,800 humans ultimately died, and the animal mortality numbers soared. While no definitive count exists, estimates of animals dead or displaced after the hurricane range from 50,000 to a whopping 600,000—reports vary drastically—an astronomical figure that almost certainly includes Snowball. Numerous rewards were offered by good-natured Internet onlookers, but news of a reunion never came.

Lawmakers, however, took notice of the gut-punch story. “The dog was taken away from this little boy, and to watch his face was a singularly revealing and tragic experience,” said U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, the late California Democrat, as he introduced a piece of legislation called the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act. Passing with bipartisan support in 2006—a phenomenon about as rare then as it is now—the PETS Act required state and local disaster-relief plans to account for pet owners, household pets, and service animals in their rescue protocols. The Texas Legislature followed suit in 2007 with its own bill, dubbed “Simba’s Law,” requiring similar accommodations for pets and service animals during disaster responses.

Yet while the legislation has been praised for ensuring that pets be evacuated alongside owners, both the state and federal laws failed to spell out what to do with them at shelters. Shuttlesworth believes the GRB was one of the first emergency shelters ever to allow pet owners to remain with their animals. “The PETS Act basically says there should be a plan, you need to make a plan, but there aren’t any teeth in it, any direction,” she says. “What we found in throwing together this shelter is that sometimes it’s worth stepping up and doing what you can do.”

By the time Riddle and her convoy arrived early Tuesday, the great shelter experiment was humming along. Vets treated Ruby, the bunny, for a nasty case of ear mites. Riddle’s 11-year-old granddaughter, Jocelyn, sat entertained by Sugar, her “emotional support guinea pig.” Riddle could figure out the next steps with the peace of mind that everyone, sans Feenixx, was safe and sound.

“Some people feared it would be noisy, dirty, chaotic—one big free-for-all,” says Shuttlesworth. “Exactly the opposite happened. Owners took care of their pets and had something to distract them from the situation. People who were living in the human-only sections kept wanting to come to the animal hall because it was so much calmer.”

Volunteers collected crates at the GRB.

After three weeks, when the GRB shelter eventually closed, Exhibit Hall A had served more than 1,500 animals, setting the bar for relief workers and garnering glowing reports from NPR and a spot on PBS NewsHour. Thousands of animals ended up in shelters across the city, just as with Katrina, but the pets at the GRB walked in and back out with their owners. The attention was nice, of course, but everyone involved just hoped to leverage the moment to ensure the progress stuck.

“It can be done again easily,” Cutts says. “We have all of the data-registration templates, we have the processes, we know what to do, we know what supplies to ask for, we know who to call. The model works, and we  know how to set it up really, really quick.”

That’s why, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, and others, Friends for Life veterans contributed to a manual, released this summer, for launching and running a cohabitated shelter. Extensive field guides already exist to brief jurisdictions on every aspect of human-shelter management, ranging from handling HVAC systems to parking. This new manual, based in part on Houston’s experience with Harvey, supplements those materials, providing a crash course on how to keep families intact while also attending to valid public health and safety concerns (read: lots of pee pads for dogs stuck indoors, and distinctly separate areas for animals and people with allergies).

In many ways, it’s a necessary update that reflects the changing relationship between humans and animals.

“Pets for a long time were seen as animals that were for some type of use, whether it’s guard dogs or cats that were mousers,” says Lori Kogan, professor of Clinical Sciences for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University and editor of the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin. “That’s really changed over the last couple generations with a new economy, people delaying the decision to have children, or not having them at all. Today some of us really, truly see pets as family members with all the rights and privileges. That’s why we’re putting it all on the line to save them.”

Adds Shuttlesworth: “If we put this manual in the hands of agencies, they have this checklist, so they can say, ‘We know how to do this.’ Which means, at the end of the day, more people are going to be willing to leave their flooding homes if they know they can take their animals.”

When the GRB closed after three weeks, Exhibit Hall A had served more than 1,500 animals. Every pet walked in and out with its owner.

A whole year later, Riddle can’t say for sure whether she’s prepared for another Harvey, or if she’ll even have a place to live in a few months. She bounced around from shelter to shelter after the GRB closed, finally securing, in late October, a subsidized apartment in the sprawling Reserve at Westwood complex just shy of the Beltway. “I’m afraid to make it home,” she says, glancing at the bare walls of her sparsely furnished second-floor unit.

After the waters receded, her son had returned to the soggy rental trailer to find it totally unsalvageable, covered in noxious black mold. He did, however, encounter a snarling tortoiseshell bobtail slinking around the property. He brought the cat back to the apartment, where it darted under one of the beds. That’s when Riddle, at long last, had her reunion.

“I started calling her—‘Feenixx!’—because she knows my voice,” Riddle says. “She realized who it was, and she came out all hesitant, like, ‘Mom? Momma?’ She got up on the bed—and I swear that this grumpy cat had not purred for me in almost two years—and when she saw me, she did not stop kissing me and purring. We just stayed in there and loved on each other for a good two hours, you know? She was just so happy to see me, and I was so happy to see her.”

Even with Feenixx back, there were fewer pets in the house. Ruby’s undiagnosed medical conditions, discovered at the shelter, forced Riddle to surrender the rabbit to a vet. Renaye, Riddle’s daughter, eventually found another living situation and took Balloo, the dog, with her. And Riddle’s debilitating lupus, combined with a Social Security check already stretched to its limit, compelled the family to give up Sugar, the guinea pig, to Friends for Life. Riddle remains in touch with Cutts, the volunteer from the Heights shelter she met at the GRB, who hand-delivers bags of cat food to the apartment now and again.

There are some days when Riddle still finds herself wading through the memories of that terrible evacuation. The loud, frustrating nights on uncomfortable shelter cots. The time separated from Feenixx.

The fact is, you can’t prepare for this, Riddle says. All she can do is hope that if another hurricane blows down the door and forces her into those floodwaters, there will be another place like the GRB where she can take everyone—cat included.

If not, well, Riddle says she’ll just have to find a way to make it work.

“If there’s no place to go, and I have to live in a tent in the woods, cats are adaptable,” Riddle says. “It is what it is. But I believe in God, and I don’t believe he’s going to leave us destitute or take my Feenixx away again. I just know it.” She pauses for a moment. “And if he tries, I won’t allow it.” 

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