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Animal rescue team cares about pets in emergencies

By Simone Ramel

In case of disasters, families often wonder what may happen to Fido, Fluffy, Flipper or the farm animals. When evacuating, it’s hard to take canines, felines, equines, bovines or birds along to shelters.

Nearly 30 volunteers with the local Humane Evacuation Animal Rescue Team (HEART), a cooperative effort for animals in local or national emergencies or disasters.

They are “first responders” for animals, providing medical care, evacuation, temporary shelter and identification. 

When called, they meet, organize, make a plan and assign duties.  Hours of pre-planning are required so they can be efficient when they are needed.

The idea for an animal support organization started after the Fire Storm in 1991 and the Ice Storm in 1996 when people could not go home to their animals.

In 2003, Dick Green, a local animal lover, emergency relief specialist and member of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, began gathering people to form an organization in support of local animals.

More than 150 people attended the initial community meeting and monthly meetings have continued since.

In 2006, with support from Spokane’s Spokanimal Care and the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service (SCRAPS), HEART was officially formed.

For HEART’s president, Janis Christensen, and vice-president, Janet Schaffer, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the spark that fueled their commitment to support communities and animals locally.

Drawn to help rebuild after Katrina, Janis experienced first-hand the lack of rescue support for animals in the aftermath of the hurricane.  Janet also experienced a shift in her thinking.
“After 9-11 and then Katrina, I questioned how we can best take care of ourselves and our pets in emergencies,” Janet said.  “I knew I needed to be involved in a community effort at that point.”

“More than 60 percent of households have animal companions. For most people, animals are family,” said Janis.  “To acknowledge that bond is important to me.”

Both women have dogs and cats that are rescued animals, so owning and loving animals is also behind their commitment.

Volunteers with HEART require training and commitment. Specialty training is available for any interested volunteer and is required for those who work directly with the animals.

Not all volunteers handle animals, so there are opportunities for animal lovers to help without going through training.

“Our volunteers bring varied skills from their diverse backgrounds,” Janet said.  “In any emergency, it’s a group effort.” 

Volunteers who receive training are credentialed through a number of national programs: the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), the Emergency Animal Rescue Service (EARS), the American Humane Association (AHA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

The dedication of HEART volunteers is known in the animal rescue circles.  HEART receives calls to assist both the AHA and HSUS for a variety of animal emergencies throughout the country.

For example, they recently sent three people to Missouri to deal with a pit bull ring.  Volunteers took rotations in and out of Missouri to care for 500 dogs living in poor conditions. 

Locally, Spokanimal and SCRAPS contact HEART for support when animals are threatened.  Last May, SCRAPS contacted HEART to assist with the Kennewick puppy mill incident.  Sixteen volunteers were there for a week to take care of the dogs.  Many were ill, malnourished and in general need of attention.

During last summer’s Valley View fire, HEART volunteers were activated to set up a shelter at the Spokane Fairgrounds, in anticipation of an evacuation.  The shelter was set up in one hour and 25 volunteers came forward to assist with the emergency. 

Owners dropped off animals for safe-keeping and animals found running loose were also brought in.  Dogs, cats, goats and horses came through the shelter, were cared for and eventually were returned to their owners.

“During emergencies, things are complicated and our adrenaline is pumping.  To help keep things simple, we have a quiet area available for those who need it,” said Janet, adding that team members are supportive of each other.

HEART  also offers information to help animal owners know what to do to protect themselves and their animals in disasters.


For information, call 251-1251, visit www.pnw-heart.org or email heartofthewest@yahoo.com.