On this anniversary of Katrina, many of us are certain that if nothing else came out of the flooding of New Orleans, evacuees will never again be forced to leave without their animals. Now it turns out this is not true.
Last weekend, as animal rescuers gathered in New Orleans to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Katrina, the people of the Blackfeet Reservation in Heart Butte, Montana were forced to leave their animals behind when fleeing a wildfire. They were under a mandatory evacuation because their small town was threatened by the Spotted Eagle Fire.
The fire started August 28 from a lightning strike and the mandatory evacuation of the tinder dry area started the same day. When the evacuation busses arrived, people were not allowed to board with animals. (If you think these people just don’t care about their animals, take a look at this cute video pinned to the top of the Lewis & Clark Humane Society FaceBook page of an evacuated dog who was taught to pray before getting a treat.)
How could this be possible after passage of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006, the federal law commonly called the Pets Act? The Blackfeet reservation is a law unto itself, so those in charge have the authority to prevent people from evacuating with animals. If you have no car, and you have children, you have no choice but to get on the evacuation bus provided and take your children out of danger, no matter how much it breaks your heart to leave your dog or cat behind in danger.
However, the Blackfeet people are not without their resources, and one of their own made the three hour drive from Helena, Montana to help the animals left behind. Gina Wiest is the Director of Helana, Montana’s “Lewis and Clark Humane Society.” She is a Blackfeet and she has family near Heart Butte, the reservation town under evacuation order. Wiest collected supplies, drove to the area, checked in with local animal rescuers and learned that no evacuating residents were allowed to take their animals and no animals were permitted in the Red Cross shelter. Of course those with vehicles could take animals, but many were dependent on reservation busses for transportation to safety.
Wiest did not hesitate. She called state level authorities of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and asked for help. (She also authorized a GoFundMe.) HSUS immediately approved funds and people to start setting up an animal shelter that day at the 4-H fairgrounds. Animeals in Missoula sent 1,000 pounds of food and is now out after helping out with other wildfires. The Pad For Paws Foundation also donated $1,000 worth of cat and dog food. It was a statewide effort to help.
Gina Wiest partnered with Kim Wippert of the reservation’s Pets For Life program and with Denise Salois of the Kaawa’pomaaka Rescue Society of Browning. They got her access to the Red Cross shelter and the fire zone and accompanied her.
As a result of their efforts, the trio was granted access to the fire zone to collect animals. At the Red Cross shelter, they found people sheltering in their cars with their dogs and cats because the Red Cross would not allow animals inside the shelter. All those people welcomed the news that an animal shelter would be provided.
When evacuees arrived at the Red Cross shelter, some found people with cars who offered a ride back to pick up the animals they left behind. Those evacuees, who wanted to retrieve their pets, were told if they left to get animals, they would not be permitted back into the Red Cross shelter. However, the animal rescuers were given access to talk to the evacuees. When an announcement was made that animal rescuers would be picking up animals, people came forward with their house keys and instructions.
It was late afternoon, the rescuers and a few other volunteers took two trucks and fifteen sets of house keys and left for the wildfire area. Wiest says she felt safe. They checked in at the fire hall. The fire officials knew she was permitted to rescue animals and they knew where she would be with her team. Wippert had a walkie talkie and as they went from house to house, emergency responders were driving up and down telling people to leave. Some people were refusing to leave their animals and those holdouts were threatened with fines if they stayed.
It was a desperate situation. For every animal she had permission to pick up and room to take, there were many more animals who were roaming. Wiest was disheartened at not being able to take them all. She thought the street dogs, whom she fondly terms “rez dogs” had the resources to flee and she did not have the resources to gather them up. But they did rescue a dog trapped and howling in an open dumpster. The dog may have gotten stuck looking for food, but perhaps someone put her in the dumpster.
The animal rescue crew had all their animals for this trip when they got the word to go immediately. Wiest admits driving out along a road that was on fire was “a little scary.”
They were able to go back in much later that night and once again the next day. They ultimately rescued eighty animals left behind, including two rats, a vole, a rabbit, and the dog in the dumpster, now named Dumpsy.
The fire did not reach the town and, as of this writing, the evacuation order for most, but not all, of Heart Butte is lifted. No homes were destroyed and all the street dogs are safe. Most people are back in their homes, but the emergency animal shelter will remain active until at least the weekend, as some people are still under the mandatory evacuation order.
But the sad reminder of Katrina still lingers. If there has to be another evacuation, people will not be allowed to take animals on the evacuation busses. Had the fire reached the town, people and animals would have perished due to these restrictions.
Here is an online fund raiser to help with the expense of the animal evacuation and to help the animals on the reservation. Every cent donated to the “Lewis & Clark Humane Society GoFundMe will go to helping reservation animals.” Kim Wippert is running a pet retention program, Pets for Life, to help people on the reservation with limited means keep their animals. She is now implementing a pet food bank and extra donations will help get that started.
Gina Wiest has great respect for the “rez dogs.” One evacuated Malmute named Ghost is a veritable Houdini. Each morning, no matter their efforts to secure him, he meets the volunteers opening up at the door to the animal evacuation building. Ghost spends the day hanging out with staff and helping himself to treats in closed containers. After all, if you can get out, you can get in! But even a Houdini dog like Ghost would have a hard time locked in a house with a wildfire approaching.