By: Patti Strand  Date: 01/27/2012

Dozens of organizations responded to a call for help when New Orleans was smashed by Hurricane Katrina in September. One of the first in line was SPCA Cincinnati, Ohio, an association well-known in Ohio and Kentucky for its disaster relief efforts and willingness to help other area shelters place adoptable animals in new homes.

SPCA Cincinnati sent field supervisor Todd Manser to New Orleans to help organize the huge temporary shelter set up in Gonzales, Louisiana. Manser drove south in a motor home leased by the SPCA and used it as an unofficial headquarters for about a dozen volunteers who worked long hours to take care of the animals brought to the facility.

Manser helped devise a system for animal intake and made sure it ran smoothly. Many of the incoming dogs were identified as pit bulls; Manser’s expertise in handling these dogs as an animal control officer in Ohio, a state where the dogs are considered vicious by law, was of particular value in this job.

While Manser worked in the south, SPCA officials in Cincinnati prepared to receive 150 animals to be vetted and placed in foster homes until they could be reunited with their families or adopted to new homes. SPCA director Harold Dates and shelter manager Andy Mahlman worked tirelessly to get donations of equipment, veterinary care, and transportation for the animals. Dates was determined to provide a smooth and efficient effort to minimize stress for the animals and provide the best opportunity to get the pets back home if possible.

About 400 people volunteered to foster the dogs. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department conducted background checks on the applicants, and 150 were selected to receive the animals. The American Kennel Club Companion Animal Recovery donated crates for each animal. Dr. Kevin Ketring, a veterinarian who sits on the SPCA board of directors, organized local veterinarians to provide immediate care for the animals when they arrived. A donor paid for the cargo plane that would bring the dogs and cats to Cincinnati, and Delta Airlines donated the use of a cargo conveyer belt for removing the animals from the aircraft.

Dozens of volunteers were at Greater Cincinnati Airport when the cargo aircraft arrived on September 16. Every animal was briefly checked before being transported to the SPCA’s new facility in suburban Cincinnati. Animals that were ill were sent to veterinary clinics. The remainder received more extensive physicals before being placed in foster homes.

Sixty percent of the dogs were heartworm positive, Mahlman said, and were being treated for the parasitic disease. Other medical problems included skin problems and ringworm.

Dates also worked with the local Red Cross when a few families brought their pets to Cincinnati from the storm area. The Red Cross set up a shelter in an elementary school; the SPCA set up a pet shelter in a wing of the school.

SPCA Cincinnati has a history of helping people during disasters by helping their pets. When the Ohio River overflowed in 1997, Dates and Mahlman cleared the shelter auditorium and put in crates to accommodate the pets of owners who were flooded out of their homes. When a tornado hit a northern suburb, they took in pets until owners could find a place to live or get their homes repaired.

“We did it because the animals needed help,” Dates said of Manser’s trip to Louisiana and the decision to provide foster care for displaced dogs and cats. “We did it to give owners an opportunity to find their pets and to help relieve the stress on the rescuers. There was not much choice as far as we were concerned.”

“It was a learning process,” Mahlman added. “I think we pulled it off pretty well.”

Because owners are facing serious disruptions to their lives, Dates said that the SPCA may never be repaid for the medical care that the dogs and cats received while in Cincinnati or for the expenses in getting the pets back to their owners. Yet they persist – no animal has been denied the care that it needs.

October 15 was the official deadline for closing the Louisiana shelter and keeping animals in foster care; after that date, the animals could be placed in new homes. Dates said that several families were interested in adopting the animals they fostered. Ten animals have been returned to their owners as of the end of October, including an aged Dachshund that underwent surgery for a tumor while he was in SPCA care. That dog was flown to his owners who had relocated to Washington State.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, national groups such as the Humane Society of the US raised millions of dollars for hurricane relief. HSUS alone raised $16 million. Dates said that there were discussions about using some of that money to reimburse local shelters for expenses incurred in the course of storm rescue activities. As of October 3, no decision had been made. Nonetheless, SPCA Cincinnati remains in the thick of the effort to get displaced pets back home and to do what it can to defray its costs locally.

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