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Rescuing Gulf Coast Animals Endangered by Hurricane Isaac

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The devastating images from Louisiana and Mississippi following Hurricane Isaac's landfall are heart wrenching. While the damage from Isaac has not approached that of Hurricane Katrina, for the families and their pets who have been displaced from their homes, the effect on them is just as monumental.

Some of my most indelible memories during my tenure at the ASPCA were those following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Along with most of you, I watched video of people who were imperiled but would not evacuate because they would not leave their pets behind. The ASPCA aided animal evacuation efforts and provided critical funding and expertise after Katrina, but at the same time we studied ways we could be more effective in saving animals in future disasters.

Katrina inspired me to build a world-class field investigation and disaster response program at the ASPCA to help human and animal victims of natural and manmade disasters. In the years since, we've recruited some of the best responders in the business and have heeded lessons from previous manmade and natural disasters, such as September 11th, Katrina, the Joplin tornado, and Hurricane Irene. This week we are on the ground assisting other groups with caring for the animals endangered by floodwaters as a result of Hurricane Isaac.

The ASPCA's first priority was to remove any animals we could from the potentially dangerous situation, so we assisted the Humane Society of South Mississippi in pre-evacuation efforts by transporting animals from Gulfport, Miss., to the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The animals traveled in style in the ASPCA's custom-built, 40-foot-long animal transport trailer. Most of the animals we transported were large mixed-breed dogs who are now up for adoption at the Humane Society of Broward County.

One of the lessons we learned from other disasters, particularly following Hurricane Katrina, was that a lack of coordination, organization or trained personnel are all factors that cost lives and waste money. Thus, we made sure that when Isaac threatened we worked "smart" to save as many animals as possible. To that end, we were a part of a well coordinated rescue effort under the control of the Louisiana State Animal Response Team (LSART).

LSART contacted the ASPCA for assistance as severe flooding threatened communities in St. John the Baptist Parish, La. The ASPCA mobilized our team and sent water rescue teams to search door-to-door for displaced or stranded pets and to reunite local residents with their animals. We also worked with local Louisiana agencies to help them transport approximately 100 animals from the St. John Parish Animal Shelter in LaPlace, La. until the flooding subsides.

The ASPCA was also on the ground in Mississippi working with the Harrison County Animal Control and the East Harrison County Fire Service to rescue 23 rabbits, four goats, five dogs and an armadillo from rising waters. I've worked in animal welfare for more than 35 years and have been privileged to helm organizations where we've rescued many types of animals, but this may be the first time I've encountered an armadillo rescue! The dogs, goats, and rabbits are now being safely sheltered, and the armadillo was relocated to a much dryer home.

September is National Preparedness Month, so now is a good time to evaluate your readiness to cope with a disaster of any type. Even if you don't live in an area prone to hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes or other natural disasters, plenty of other emergencies, such as gas leaks or fires, can cause an unexpected need to evacuate with your pet. I can't emphasize enough the importance of having your dogs or cats microchipped, because that is the best tool emergency responders have to reunite people with their pets. You can find a detailed checklist to help you craft your own disaster preparedness plan on the ASPCA's website. Most importantly, always take your pets with you any time you have to evacuate -- if it isn't safe or comfortable for you, it won't be for your pets either.