I appreciate the opportunity to respond to some of the comments in Eric’s blog.
We’re prepared to meet any criticism that’s offered in a rational manner.
I’ve been at Gonzales for two weeks, side by side with dozens of HSUS staff
members deployed in Louisiana (with equivalent numbers of staff active in
Mississippi and also now working in western Louisiana and east Texas).
Let me first acknowledge that the impact of this disaster exceeded our capacity to respond. We are not embarrassed to say this.
We have trained hundreds of people who deployed to Mississippi and Louisiana through our Disaster Animal Response Team (DART) program, but we did not have the capacity to respond to a disaster of this magnitude. I would say our greatest shortcoming was our communications and database management. We stumbled on this, and it did hurt our effort.
That said, we have thrown everything we could at the disaster and our
people are working around the clock. We are learning some lessons the hard way,
but we’ve never had to respond to a crisis of this order. I will mention that our staff -- who work in our regional offices, government affairs, companion animals, investigations, and many other sections -- put aside their regular duties and deployed to help, whether in the field or organizing at our headquarters office, and every one of these people is passionate about the cause and got involved in our response with a tremendous sense of responsibility and purpose. I’m proud of what we have done.
I want to reply to some of Eric’s allegations and criticisms.
1) Rumor: We may have stopped the flow of volunteers.
Fact: We have maintained our call for volunteers consistently for weeks. This
was briefly interrupted by Rita, since the Lamar Dixon facility manager and the
police instructed us very specifically to evacuate most of our people. We
deployed only emergency personnel during the storm, and we also suspended
rescue during the period when we were under the storm warning. We have been
critical of people who did not prepare for the hurricane, and we felt it would not be proper and right for us to send people into a storm. That was our decision, and we’d make it again.
We had 1,000 animals at the shelter to protect, and we focused our efforts on that task.
The only other hindrance to our call for volunteers was the hostility of the Lamar Dixon management, and their constant hectoring that we had too many people at the site and that if we didn’t turn things around, they’d lock the gates. Even in the face of that threat, we’ve been calling hundreds of people every day and urging deployment. We’ve contacted humane societies and animal control staff and asked them to respond.
2) Rumor: "It’s almost impossible to be a rescuer with HSUS."
Fact: This is really a wild exaggeration. Everybody who comes to the briefing at
5:30 a.m. can get out into the field if they agree to play by the rules and can
function normally. We are sending teams out every morning, and we have called
in animal control personnel from around the country who are core participants
with the rescue operation. Of course, we’d like to have highly skilled people for certain elements of the effort, but we’ve tried to absorb all kinds of volunteers into the effort, and we’ll continue to do so.
3)Rumor: "They [HSUS] will only take critical animals."
Fact: In very specific areas, where people are allowed to return to evacuated areas of New Orleans, we are advising that rescuers only take the critical animals. Healthy looking animals can be fed, and the feeding documented, so we can get back to them in a week’s time. This will allow us to focus on the animals that must be rescued in areas where residents are not coming back any time soon. Of the thousands of animals taken to the Gonzales facility, only a small portion have been critical, refuting in flesh and blood the claim that we’ve restricted the rescue only to animals in critical condition.
4) Rumor: "HSUS is looking to wind down the Gonzales operation."
Fact: There is a measure of truth to this, but it’s not by choice. The property
managers want us out of there, and they have waged a campaign of harassment to
drive us out. What’s more, we operate under the incident command structure of
the State Veterinarian’s Office and meet with the state team every day. They
have asked us to cease intake of animals by September 30th. We are beseeching
them to let us continue for a longer period, and we are cautiously optimistic we’ll persuade them to extend our rescue operations through Lamar Dixon.
In addition, we are working with the Louisiana SPCA to ready their new
operations site. On Saturday, October 1, we expect that facility to be operational in Algiers (which is within New Orleans). Some days ago I spoke to Eric about getting a staging area near New Orleans, so presumably he’ll be happy about this.
5) Rumor: petfinder.com and 1-800-Humane-1
Fact: Petfinder is not "a way of acting like they have a plan for these animals." It’s the software that was available when this disaster hit. We all wish that there was something better out there, ready for immediate use, but there wasn’t. As crucial as the data management challenge was from the beginning, it was only one of a dozen serious and urgent problems we faced.
Working with others, The HSUS tried hard to improve this existing software to
make available a comprehensive, user-friendly database that would achieve
multiple goals: that all animals rescued be identified according to the location from which they were retrieved; that their immediate location, condition, treatment and other factors critical to their immediate and long-term care be recorded; that their movements from the temporary emergency shelter at Lamar Dixon to locations around the country be tracked; and, most critically, that they can be reunited with their owners as promptly as possible. The reality of the situation is that no single database or software system that could accomplish all of these goals existed prior to August 29, and the process of developing, testing, improving and utilizing such a system has been compressed into a short timeframe in the midst of an emergency. That process continues right now, involving not only The HSUS, but also the ASPCA, Petfinder.com, and others. We expect that petfinder.com will be much more user-friendly for the public within days.
In the absence of an existing database system sufficient to meet all of the competing demands, the HSUS and all other animal organizations involved in the animal search, rescue, care and treatment effort did rely on paper forms. That was often -- and in some cases continues to be -- the most practical and efficient way to record information on the large numbers of animals treated. Information from more than a thousand intake forms has since been uploaded to the petfinder.com database, by a corps of HSUS staffers working around the clock. Information about the transfer of animals to other shelters, again recorded in paper form because of the exigencies of the situation, is in the process of being included in Petfinder. HSUS staff and volunteers are double-checking the location of animals transported to other agencies and the national organizations are actively encouraging receiving shelters and agencies nationwide to promptly and accurately update Petfinder with information about animals in their temporary care.
The process is not perfect; everyone at The HSUS wishes it was. However,
suggestions that it should be perfect are simply unrealistic and reflect a poor
understanding of the complexities and demands involved. Nonetheless, we
believe the system is improving, has already assisted owners to reunite with their pets, and will continue to do so.
With regard to people who called the HSUS's number (or that of other animal
protection organizations) for help in rescuing their pets, all of the information provided by each caller was recorded and the information transmitted to rescue teams in the field. We certainly wish that we had the resources or even the physical ability to respond to each request immediately upon receiving the call. For reasons that are apparent to anyone viewing the situation on the ground in an objective fashion, that has not been possible -- although efforts are continuing to reach every address where an animal was reported to have been left behind or is otherwise in need. All rescue teams involved did and continue to work to rescue the greatest number of animals possible.
I am not personally aware of any individual who was told by The HSUS that their
animals had been rescued but later found that was not true. Our policy has been, since the inception of our emergency call center, whether the call was handled by HSUS staff, volunteers or contractors, to candidly advise callers that neither The HSUS nor any other organization is in a position to guarantee the rescue of their pets and that they should explore all other options to accomplish that goal.
6) Rumor: "HSUS has taken on a strategy that we feel will allow thousands of animals to starve in their houses."
Fact: There's no single strategy that should be at work in a disaster like this. In some cases, we are proceeding with a straight rescue plan: get into a house, capture the animals, and transport them back to our staging area so they can receive medical care and shelter. In other cases, especially in areas where residents are scheduled to return and where the animals look healthy, we are feeding and watering and keeping the animals in place. There, they can survive, and not be subjected to the stress of capture and transport. We then make note of the feeding and revisit the site and feed the animals again or pick them up, depending upon an assessment of their condition.
The idea of feeding and watering also was more attractive when our staging area was nearly full of animals, and we had to make a judgment on which animals to bring back. But we won’t let any animal starve to death or subsist indefinitely without rescue or the return of somebody to a given house. Going forward, we’ll revisit every one of those situations, and we’ll bring out more animals as necessary.
7) Rumor: "I hear this list is over 20k and could be much larger."
Fact: The list of rescue requests has not topped 5,000. There were duplications
eliminated when we got to work on the database and that’s my best estimate for
what we received. But from the day our people hit the ground, there were other
lists in circulation, and we lost no time in acting to save animals identified for rescue.
Every truck coming back from New Orleans to Gonzales was full of
animals, and the job was getting done.
Here’s the bottom line:
1) We will get through every address for a trapped animal provided by any group
active in relief and rescue efforts.
2) We have already been involved in the rescue of more than 7,000 animals.
There have been nearly 500 reunions of animals with the families that love them.
3) We have transported thousands of animals to local humane societies and other
safe areas, including to a major prison in Louisiana, where the animals are getting exceptional care.
4) We are committed to helping to rebuild the shelters throughout the Gulf States region.
5) We will learn every lesson from this disaster and be stronger and better the
next time a response is required.
6) We have worked with members of Congress to initiate legislation to mandate
that government authorities incorporate animals into their disaster plans, and we will press this case until we get a positive outcome.
No non-profit organization should be saddled with the responsibility to save all of the animals in a disaster. It’s just too big a job. We don’t tell or expect the Red Cross to go out and save all of the people, but to help the government in its efforts. The same should apply for animals, who are threatened by the millions when a disaster strikes in a large area.
President & CEO
The Humane Society of the United States
2100 L Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20037
Fax (301) 258-3077