Amidst the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, the images and stories of people rescuing pets have brought a small ray of hope. But does it make sense to devote time or resources to rescuing animals when there are people who are displaced and stranded?
As Katie Jarl, Texas state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said, "rescuing pets is rescuing people."
"Someone [who is] devastated by the loss of their home, all their belongings, and is then told they will lose their beloved family member—that is one of the most horrifying things people would have to face in these situations," Jarl told me over the phone. "You should look at their face when you reunite them, it means everything, especially for someone who has lost so much."
Jarl is based in San Antonio, where she's coordinating rescue efforts with workers on the ground in Southeast Texas. Workers there deploy every day, fighting intense rain and rising flood waters to follow up on emergency calls reporting stranded animals, including dogs, cats, and horses. Jarl is also clearing out state shelters (the animals are being transferred to other parts of the country) so that displaced pets will have a place to stay until their owners can care for them again. She said she's been in "disaster mode," for the past week, and as a native Houstonian, that also means checking up on family and friends.
Jarl said the flood waters are moving very quickly, so fast that the rescue team has had trouble locating an additional boat with a motor powerful enough to fight the current. She said it's why they advise good samaritans to leave the rescues up to the professionals, who saved 28 animals from League City Tuesday night alone. While it's still too early to tally the number of animals impacted, major storms can displace hundreds of thousands of pets—in Hurricane Katrina, an estimated 250,000 dogs and cats were displaced or died, according to the ASPCA.
"The dangers associated with what they're doing are very serious," Jarl said.
As stories of animals left behind spread, it's easy to be critical of the owners who abandoned their dogs and cats, but Jarl said no one was prepared for how devastating the storm has been. Many people were not able to bring their pets with them when forced to make an emergency evacuation. But Jarl said they're outnumbered by the residents who refused to leave any family member behind, even the furry ones.
"If you look at images on the news, there are more people carrying dogs around their necks than there are people carrying their own possessions," Jarl said. "In a situation like this, people bring their family."
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.