'We keep on going back out there': The race to save Houston's abandoned pets

With floodwaters threatening shelters, help is coming from as far away as Canada.

With floods threatening shelters, help is coming from as far away as Canada

Two dogs in a cage in Rockport, Texas, have two buckets of water and some food on filthy ground. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Behind some buildings in Rockport, Texas, close enough to a main road that you can still hear the traffic, are two dogs in a cage.

Last Friday night, a Category 4 hurricane swept through this city. It looks as though these dogs have been here ever since.

Someone dumped some dog food in the cage and filled two buckets with water. There's urine and feces everywhere. The medium-sized brown dog nibbles on some food that has mixed with its own excrement, ground in by its paws. There they wait for their owners' return.

Those leading the rescue efforts say there's no way of knowing how many pets are lost, abandoned or dead following Hurricane Harvey.

A volunteer with San Antonio Pets Alive! carries a dog rescued from Houston. The dog is bound for a shelter in Spokane, Wash. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Sometimes pet owners come back, but often they don't, or can't.

That's why a group of volunteers in San Antonio was packing up Thursday and getting ready to board a bus headed 320 kilometres east to Houston, much of which remains under water. 

Mission to pick up stray animals

In the back were 70 cages, ready to receive the animals that had been rescued by animal welfare workers in Houston who now need rescuing themselves.

"The water has risen and they're having to close their doors," says Maureen O'Nell, executive director of San Antonio Pets Alive! "The animals that they were protecting before the storm hit are now without any home at all."

Now, a tiny shelter in San Antonio will be their temporary home.

Pets Alive! is overflowing with animals. The room is loud and smells terrible, but it's much better than where they were rescued from.

San Antonio Pets Alive! is located at the back of a suburban mini-mall, next to a Zumba studio.

Inside, the sound of barking is deafening and the smell of dog excrement is overpowering. The small cages vibrate with agitated dogs. Tails protrude from the bars.

The shelter wasn't built to accommodate so many animals, but shelter staff do what they can with what they have. For these dogs, crammed is better than wet, or worse.

The shelter is staffed by only three people, but dozens of volunteers have answered the call.

Many of the rescued animals were already abandoned before Hurricane Harvey hit southern Texas. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Chantal Gabaldon of the U.S. Coast Guard saves humans during the day, and fosters Houston pets like Midnight on her own time. 

"I feel it's the least I can do, to get them off to good homes," she says.

Volunteers walk dogs at crowded shelter

Outside, all across the mall's green islands, dogs were being walked, straining on their leashes. One volunteer tried to get a small brown dog to go back in its cage. 

"She's scared," she says. "She doesn't want to go in or out."

Nicole Neemia decided to volunteer after the hurricane hit. She says if she can't be 'down in the water in a boat rescuing dogs,' this is the next best thing. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

In a corner of the shelter, sitting on the ground, volunteer Nicole Neemia stroked the head of a rescued pit pull.

"It breaks our heart," she says. "If it was up to me, we'd be down in the water in a boat rescuing dogs."

She already has three dogs; adopting more, she says, is out of the question. So she and her husband volunteer instead.

Behind the shelter, a volunteer sat in the grass, scratching the belly of a tiny dog named Lady. Finally, a wag. The first, he says, since Lady arrived from Houston.

Finally, lying in the grass, being patiently scratched, Lady wags her tail for what a volunteer says was the first time since she'd been rescued. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

After what they've been through, O'Nell says, half of the rescued pets are suffering from stress illnesses.

"These are not animals that can fend for themselves very often. And when that attachment gets broken it can break their heart," she says. "They need their families, they need their packs, they need their people to take care of them."

A judgment call on abandoned pets

And what of abandoned pets like the two caged dogs in Rockport? Should passersby assume their owners will come back eventually, or should they let them out?

"It's always a judgment call and that's part of a natural disaster," O'Nell says. "It would be no different than if it were an elderly person or a child who cannot fend for themselves. There's no hard-and-fast rule other than follow your heart and your common sense."

San Antonio has taken in more than a 1,000 evacuees from badly hit areas, and is expecting more, including many pets.

Those leading the rescue effort learned some important lessons from Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.

"During Katrina, families were not allowed to stay with their pets," O'Nell says. "We have evolved. I can't say enough good things about our mayor who has made sure that our human shelters have allowed pets to come in."

And soon, help will be arriving from north of the border.

Nicole Simone, founder of Toronto-based Redemption Dogs, says she and some volunteers will drive to Houston with pet supplies, and return with abandoned dogs in need of homes. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Redemption Dogs, a pet advocacy organization based in Toronto, has raised $12,000 to fund a rescue mission.

Next week, they will be taking two vans full of supplies to Houston and returning with up to two dozen dogs. Founder Nicole Simone is trying to recruit volunteers to help drive the dogs across the border, and then she hopes Canadians will open their homes. 

"People can apply to foster [Hurricane] Harvey dogs with Black Dog Rescue, Canine Haven, Safe Home Rescue, so that when the dogs arrive they'll go into foster care," she says.

Getting pets out of the danger zone

Texas animal welfare advocates say they need all the help they can get.

The Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care in Houston estimates there were approximately 300,000 stray dogs in the city before the hurricane hit. That's why organizations like San Antonio Pets Alive! are heading back to Houston for more dogs.

"And we keep on going back out there to get the flow away from the danger area," O'Nell says.

As Sylvia Johnson cleaned yet another dirty cage and replaced its pee pad, she acknowledged the accommodations for these pets aren't ideal. But, she says, "We're doing the best we can."

Some of the dogs are physically injured, but most are psychologically harmed by the stress. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

This is just a way station. Soon these dogs will be on the move again.

An hour later, a truck pulled up out back. The dogs were loaded, some of them reluctantly, into cages. They were about to begin a 52-hour journey to a spacious shelter in Spokane, Wash., where they'll be put up for adoption.

But there's a problem.

"Gas stations are running out of fuel," Clare Callison says while printing ID placards for the dogs' crates. "Is there anybody that owns a gas station that we know of?"

With so many relief vehicles on the road to Houston, there's a shortage of diesel.

So Pets Alive! will keep going back to Houston for more dogs until they run out of fuel.


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.

with files from Travis Pereira in Toronto