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Pets at Pen Pals in a Safe Place

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They’re going to take good care of our pets, I have no doubts.

If you ever wondered how important pets are to their owners, just listen to what two River Center, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shelter residents grabbed when rising flood waters forced them to evacuate their homes without warning.

“I put some important papers in a bag, grabbed two pairs of underwear and my dog, Deliliah,” said John White, who had been measuring the water in inches until he realized it wasn’t going to stop.

“I grabbed Roscoe, two pairs of underwear and some dog food,” said George Maah. 

“Hurricane Katrina was a turning point in recognizing that saving pets saves lives,” says John Walther, Assistant Commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. “People wouldn’t leave without their pets.”

Red Cross shelters must accommodate a wide range of people. Along with infants, children and the elderly, we may also have people with pet allergies, asthma, or other health issues, and people with a fear of animals. For the well-being of all people who turn to the Red Cross for help after a disaster, there often needs to be physical space between animals and people. 

Recognizing a need, Louisiana received a $600,000 grant from the Humane Society of the United States to build Pen Pals, Inc. Dog and Cat Shelter and Adoption Center—the nation’s first specifically designed disaster pet shelter. Opened in 2010 at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, Louisiana, the facility is currently home to over 30 pets whose owners are staying at River Center. The pets were transferred from a Department of Agriculture trailer located near the shelter site.

“People knew I would be hot that our pets were being moved,” Maah said. “I scheduled a meeting to talk about our concerns. The Red Cross and the Department of Agriculture met with us one-on-one and asked us to think about our pets. Is this trailer what’s best for our pets? I made a decision that it’s not.”

This is just the second time Pen Pals, Inc. has been used after a disaster. On an everyday basis, it’s home to dozens of dogs and cats abandoned by owners and found roaming freely throughout east Feliciana Parish. Offenders clean kennels, inspect the dogs and cats for signs of illness, trauma and changes of temperament and teach each dog basic commands. LSU veterinary students routinely report to the shelter and perform physical exams, inoculations, or to spay and neuter. Every day, buses will take shelter residents to the facility where they can play with their pets in the large, outdoor yard or air-conditioned kennel.

“Everybody seemed happy, relieved,” said Colonel John Smith with the Department of Corrections. “They saw their animals have a yard to play in and competent people taking care of them.”

The Red Cross is also a proud member of the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition (NARSC) which helps develop collaborative solutions to animal disaster response activities in coordination with emergency management officials. As a member of NARSC, the Red Cross works alongside groups such as the American Humane Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to coordinate disaster relief. In the case of Pen Pals, Inc., it’s working for everyone.

“I’m happy, and I know Delilah is,” White said. “Good experience for me, good experience for her.”

“I think it’s great,” Maah says. “They’re going to take good care of our pets, I have no doubts.”