Although Hurricane Ike devastated stretches of the U.S. Gulf Coast this past weekend, rescue crews are finding that improved evacuation procedures—and a bit of luck—helped many of the area's animals weather the storm.
Shelters set up to accommodate pets and livestock, for example, offered relief to people who were forced to evacuate while providing a safe haven for their animals.
"The sheltering process went really well. There was a place for the animals and they were all cared for," said Angela Clendenin, director of communications at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine in College Station.
"Overall I think the preparations paid off."
(Related: "Gustav Pet Evacuations Show Katrina Lessons Learned" [September 2, 2008].)
But an unknown number of other animals may not be out of the woods, as rescue and aid efforts continue for the hundreds of stranded residents who, with their pets, did not heed orders to evacuate ahead of the storm.
"The next day or two will be very telling," Clendenin said.
"We're prepared to help animals in need—we're going to be ready."
In the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many disaster-response organizations refused to accept animals into shelters, prompting pet owners to make hard choices and subsequently spurring a huge aid effort to rescue stranded pets.
"With Hurricane Rita [also in 2005], there were a lot of people that refused to evacuate because they were not allowed to take their pets with them," Clendenin said. (Read more about Rita's wrath.)
Since then groups such as the American Red Cross have been working with animal-welfare specialists to make pets and other creatures an integral part of the evacuation process.
In preparation for Ike, Texas A&M students and faculty teamed with the Brazos County (Texas) Emergency Management Team to arrange a shelter on university grounds for cats, dogs, horses, cattle, pigs, and other animals.
Clendenin reports that the shelter is already beginning to "check out" animals to owners who live in areas that were spared the worst of Ike's fury.
Debrah Schnackenberg, director of animal emergency services with the American Humane Association, is working with state officials and volunteers in Beaumont, Texas, to complete damage assessments and search and rescue missions.
She also noted dramatic improvements in pre-storm planning and evacuation execution since the disastrous hurricane season of 2005.
"The nice thing is that in a lot of areas, people actually evacuated with their animals, and we are not finding not too many animals running around," she said.
"But in the harder-hit areas, we may find more animals that are in distress. There are a lot of folks who didn't evacuate, and we're trying to find out if there are [dangerous] issues."
(See photos of Hurricane Ike's aftermath.)
"Not Our First Rodeo"
Meanwhile, some of Houston's more exotic denizens survived the storm largely unscathed.
Brian Hill, director of public affairs at the Houston Zoo, said Ike was mainly a wind event at the facility, which suffered mostly from felled trees and minor damage to some exhibits.
"We thank our lucky stars we were very fortunate that we didn't lose any animals," he said.
A 25-person team rode out the storm at the zoo, which remains without power but does have natural-gas generators in place. (Related: "Aquarium Animals Evacuate New Orleans; Zoo Gets Relief" [September 9, 2005].)
"We know of no serious injuries or fatalities among our staff," Hill said, although he added that some employees had their homes destroyed.
In fact, Hill said, the zoo is now in cleanup mode and is slated to re-open to the public on September 17.
"This is not our first rodeo," he said. "We've been here since 1922, and we've seen a few storms. Many of our buildings are built [to withstand] tropical weather.
"But, all that being said, we still feel very fortunate."
for National Geographic News