The Life of an Animal Rescue Volunteer

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Do you have a plan for natural disasters? Will you know what to do if you ever get separated from your pet? Unfortunately, the reality of losing your beloved animal can be all too real if you ever experience a hurricane, earthquake, flood or another unexpected event where you need to flee your home. The good news is that every time a natural disaster happens, an animal rescue volunteer is out there looking to save all the pets displaced by the crisis.

Emergency Animal Rescue: Why Do People and Organizations Get Involved?

"When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it was clear that the animals and people of New Orleans needed our help," says Holly Sizemore, chief national programs officer at Best Friends Animal Society. "So, we went and we ended up spending more time on the ground there than most other organizations, [and] we got to experience both the short- and long-term approaches to disaster animal help."

"After the deadly tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma we wanted to extend our services. We drove down to Moore with a van full of supplies and then took back dogs from the overcrowded shelters," says Heather Owen, executive director at One Tail at a Time. "The residents and shelter workers were so grateful that we integrated this into our mission. Since then, we have been to [rescue missions in] Houston and Puerto Rico."

Brown dog stands in flood waters of an empty street with van and bus in background

Roles of an Animal Rescue Volunteer

There are so many different types of rescue volunteers that it's important to learn exactly what these workers do to save pets from natural disasters. For example, Sizemore says, not everyone is trained in search and rescue. Professionals are often needed to help with specific challenges like fire rescue or searching in water from flooding.

But front-line emergency workers aren't the only people leading the charge to save these animals. "It's also is important to have people who understand how to quickly create temporary shelters that can safely house animals. That said, every disaster is different, and you have to be able to be flexible and creative," says Sizemore. Best Friends has over 2,000 "network partners," and these shelters and charities across the country often pitch in when a disaster hits their (or another) region.

Owen agrees on the importance of partnering with a local group in a crisis. Nationwide helpers may have some idea of what a shelter needs, but only volunteers and pet parents on the ground can say whether dog food, blankets, beds or money for a new generator is the most pressing. The most significant need after a disaster is often living space for homeless pets. "We tend to drive down with supplies, empty our van and then load up with dogs and go home," says Owen.

One Tail at a Time, as well as other service groups, often fills many roles during a disaster response operation. Owen's organization has done everything from transporting injured animals to vets and searching through debris to lifting animals out of Hurricane Harvey's floodwaters in Houston. One Tail at a Time and Best Friends have even partnered on cleanup efforts so that the smaller organization can benefit from the bigger group's experience and name recognition. "But we have also gone to areas that we knew weren't being serviced yet and offered our assistance," Owen says.

Reuniting Animals with Their Human Parents

While the first goal of emergency animal rescue is saving the lives of any pets displaced by a natural disaster, the next feat is reuniting pets with their families. "We believe it is important to put great efforts into reuniting animals with their owners," says Sizemore. "At our temporary shelter in Houston, we held all stray [or] unclaimed animals at least thirty days in hopes to reunite them." The group also posted found animals' pictures online, and helped pet parents navigate the numerous lost and found pet websites that became active after the hurricane.

"If we aren't able to reunite the pet with their owners, we then work on other positive outcomes for that pet," says Sizemore, such as transportation to a partner shelter or adoption by a new pet parent. "Any animal that comes into our care in a disaster situation, we guarantee them a positive outcome — unless the animal truly requires euthanasia as an act of mercy."

However, One Tail at a Time takes a different — yet, just as important — approach. According to Owen, the group focuses taking in animals who were already in shelters during a disaster, or cats and dogs who have still not been claimed by families after their "stray hold." The surrendered and unclaimed animals are the first ones to be transported to partner shelters in other regions, leaving more local space for displaced pets. By clearing up room in the shelters, One Tail at a Time creates more room for strays to be found by their rightful families and better opportunities for animals who cannot be re-homed nearby to get adopted.

Veterinarian writing into a notepad about health of cats in cage.

Are You Considering Becoming an Animal Rescue Volunteer?

Rescuing pets, providing them temporary shelter and attempting to reunite them with their human families is a lot of work. It takes a special type of person to become an animal rescue volunteer. Could that person be you?

Sizemore says, "My advice is that people consider volunteering not just in a disaster setting, but to help change the daily disaster of over 4,100 animals dying in shelters every day. Many local shelters [and] animal rescue groups are able to save the lives they do largely thanks to volunteers at their local shelter." This is especially true when trained shelter volunteers are whisked away to work on the front lines of emergency situations.

"It's important to ask local organizations what they actually need, and to partner with someone to be effective," says Owen. You may find that the best way to help at first is by doing more administrative tasks, such as making or answering phone calls. Once you've learned how to work at the local level, you may then feel more confident and prepared to volunteer your services during a natural disaster. Whatever you choose to do, know that you're making a difference to pets in crisis. However, the first thing you can do to volunteer is to prepare your own pet for potential natural disaster.

Contributor Bio

Erin Ollila

Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform—and even transform—its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Reach out to her on Twitter @ReinventingErin or learn more about her at