When your eyes are bursting with images of terrible suffering, such as the ones that have been filling timelines and news feeds since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, the urgent moral question is: How can I help right now?
One way, devised by the Humane Society of the United States in conjunction with local partner shelters like PAWS and Seattle Humane, is to make a bit of room for animals displaced by the flooding.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, August 30, a 12-seat, twin-engine Fairchild jet full of 38 dogs arrived at Signature Flight Support, a boutique airport at Boeing Field usually used to service small luxury airplanes for charter and business use.
Out on the tarmac, a small phalanx of local press had gathered to shoot photos and video of crates being loaded off the plane and into a van, a sprinter, and a small RV waiting to take them to local pet rescues where the dogs would be assessed by vets and animal behaviorists before being offered for adoption.
The dogs came from shelters in San Antonio and Dallas, both about 200 miles away from Houston. The idea is to make room at those locations so animals that had been occupying Houston rescues before the storm can be transported there, which would make more room at Houston shelters for pets dislocated by the recent flooding.
While we waited for the plane, one of the van drivers told me that some of the dogs who were coming from San Antonio had been in the shelter since last October, with little hope before coming to Seattle of ever being adopted. "This is like a lottery ticket for them," she said with a laugh.
The air transport was organized by Wings of Rescue, a five-year-old volunteer animal advocacy group that "flies endangered pets from high-intake and/or high-kill shelters to no-kill shelters." To date, the organization claims to have rescued 26,000 pets.
About half the dogs were taken to Seattle Humane's new $30 million facility in Bellevue, and the other half to the PAWS compound in Lynnwood. The next morning, after word of the rescue operation had spread and the dogs' arrival had been broadcast on TV news, there was a "huge surge" of interest in fostering and adopting these animals.
"Phones, e-mails, lobby all inundated," said Laura Follis, PAWS marketing and communications director. She wasn't exaggerating. By noon, the PAWS parking lot was full and a line of applicants stretched out the door.
It's not an uncommon response to natural disasters, apparently. I've often heard about the proliferation of "Katrina dogs" in Seattle from friends who work in animal rescue. An estimated 250,000 animals were killed in the flooding of New Orleans in 2005.
I walked through the shelter, where each dog had its own little cell, and I felt the familiar pang of wishing I could take every one of them home with me. I remembered the wrenching Chicago Tribune photos from Houston—the man reaching for a pole while his dog tries to swim to him, the angry orange cat up to its neck in water, the older man sobbing as he clutches his dog Otis for dear life—and fought down the lump that always rises in my throat when I see pets no one wants.
That won't be the case for this first batch of transplants. Follis was certain that all of the dogs that arrived last Wednesday would be adopted before the weekend was over.
But the effort is ongoing, and will continue, possibly for years. On September 1, they delivered 20 cats, also from Texas shelters, to Paine Field in Everett. Another 20 dogs arrived on September 3. More will arrive this week. The numbers sound small in comparison to the vastness of the devastation and the overwhelming needs of so many people in the Houston area. But what's that expression about ports and storms?
"We are an animal shelter," Follis said. "So that is what we do—we help animals. But by helping animals, we also help people. By getting the homeless animals out of the shelters and making space for pets displaced by Harvey, we are giving their owners peace of mind knowing their companions are safe."
That's not nothing. Ask any pet owner what or whom they would save first in the event their home was flooded with five feet of water.
But it's a mistake to think of the human and animal relief efforts as separate. Even if your compassion doesn't extend to the animals themselves—which I suppose is valid, technically—you need only look at those pictures to see that the bond between pets and their owners runs deeper than floodwaters.
Acknowledging the power and validity of other people's love may not seem like much in these increasingly grim times, but it's a good way to help, right now and always.