Melissa J. Nixon, DVM
Remember that our basic goal is to transport and care for animals displaced by a disaster incident and to return them to their rightful owner as soon as feasible.
There are some agencies offering assistance to animals in a disaster zone that do not necessarily share this primary directive. It is important that we realize this and coordinate from the very beginning to be certain that both groups are able to meet their goals without conflict. Some groups may have such goals as: publicity for the plight of animals, major fundraising to support all agency functions not just rescue from a disaster, or simply removal of animals from the immediate disaster area. Some may be interested in retrieving only animals of a specific breed. Returning the animal to its original owner, as opposed to adoption by another party, is of minor concern to some groups while it is a major priority for our group. Therefore, if we are in a joint shelter situation, we prefer to take responsibility fully and immediately for security, animal identification, and release of animals to ensure that every effort is made to reunite the owner with the animal(s) and prevent theft or premature adoption by any other party.
In addition to our regular security protocols, anyone coming to one of our facilities who states they are an owner in search of an animal they have been unable to find shall be handled as follows:
Remember to act always with compassion, patience, and kindness. How would you feel if your own horses were missing after a fire devastated your neighborhood while you were out shopping? What if you had been forced at gunpoint to leave your kitties behind after a hurricane? What if you had been loaded on an evacuation bus bound to another state and your poodle was taken off the bus and tied to a stop sign? What if the last time you saw your Labrador he was swimming through the floodwaters behind the boat, trying desperately to keep up? Keep those feelings in mind. The owner needs our help to find their animal. They may possibly end up needing our help to deal with the reality that none of our units have their animal and it may be dead, injured, stolen, or permanently lost.
Have the owner describe the animal, show any photos, give you the microchip number or tattoo pattern - whatever they have to prove ownership - before they are allowed to check what unidentified animals we have in the evacuation unit. Even such information as style of grooming, history of orthopedic surgeries, missing teeth, or old scars may be of use. Whether you will be helping them access a website listing unclaimed animals, look through a book of pictures, walk the barns, or post a missing animal report - get as much information as you can first. Hopefully this will detour those creeps who really just want to cruise the barns and see the "petting zoo," who may decide spontaneously to claim an animal that they are attracted to but which does not belong to them, or who may be looking for animals to steal for resale, slaughter, breeding, or fighting. This will also help clarify when the owner has lost a critter with common characteristics such as a black Labrador, a grey tiger kitty, a golden canary, or a bay Arabian horse. If this is not the owner's first visit to our facility in search of their animal, obtain enough information to pull their original record from our files. Be wary of someone who suddenly changes significant features of their animal's description on a subsequent visit; it is possible their memory has improved but just as possible they are trying to fit the description to a specific animal they saw during a previous visit to our facility.
Once you have as much information as they can provide, escort the owner through the appropriate areas of our facility to see if they recognize their animals. We sure hope so.
If an owner does not find their animal at our main facility, allow them to look through the photo binder of any unclaimed animals that we may have transferred to a kennel, ranch, animal shelter, or veterinary clinic.
Next, help them access the website(s) such as pet finder that are listing animals found and not yet claimed.
Finally, with care and compassion, help them to check the log of known deceased animals.
If the owner identifies an animal as theirs whether in the flesh or via a photo, we then need to confirm the ownership. Remember, it is easy for an animal to get into our facility but we do not release them until we are sure we have the right owner. Be aware that owners desperately want to find their animal, and they may honestly mistake a similar-looking animal as their own. That is why pre-existing ID such as microchip, tattoo, brand, rabies tag, ID tag, etc., can be so very important. All animals are to be scanned for microchip and checked for other ID before release. In fact, all animals should be rescanned and rechecked for identification at least once after admission, regardless of perceived ownership status at admission.
To claim an animal, owner needs to do at least one of the following: show photo ID such as driver's license that matches with the animal's ID tag, provide registration papers or veterinary records, show us pictures of them with the animal that clearly identify both human and the animal, or have the animal perform some commanded and uncommon behavior that only an owner would be likely to know existed. As a last resort, they can bring two neighbors to vouch for them. I personally feel that neighbors with nearby addresses or fellow boarders at a stable are probably trust worthier than just two "friends" produced by the owner-candidate to back them up in their claim. If in doubt, get the help of your supervisor. We definitely do not want to make the process too arduous for a bona fide owner, but we do want to make it difficult for those of dishonest purpose.
In the case of disputed ownership, where either two or more people claim the same unowned animal, or someone claims an animal already owned or matched with a previous person, we will retain custody of the animal until the dispute is settled. Review the above and think - could you pick your grey tabby out of a line-up of several - perhaps burned or injured - grey tabby kitties? How about your neutered and perhaps very ill middle-aged black lab who has been missing for weeks and lost significant weight? Your bay half Arab gelding that hasn't been groomed for days? How about your Toggenburg doeling? It is not necessary for one of the parties to be intentionally lying; the mistake comes of their stress and longing. We will utilize the identification procedures mentioned above to solve the puzzle in as timely a manner as possible. Who presents the animal to us initially, where and when our crews picked up the animal, and the medical history of the potential identities can all be very useful as well; this is where our meticulous recordkeeping can be very important. We may find that we need to take x-rays looking for evidence of old injuries, or clip the area that should show the scar of a given surgery, or check the veterinary records for the usual weight, etc.
Again, our goal is to return that animal to its rightful owner, but we also want to offer support and understanding to the mistaken party who is going to suffer the pain of loss once again as they continue to search for their own animal, perhaps now with less hope and increased anxiety.
When someone cannot find their missing animal, please continue to do everything in your power to give them support and help, even if they seem annoyingly persistent and dense.
Always log any animals that are still missing, as we may cross paths with that animal the next day and we certainly want to be able to contact that searching owner. We should keep these logs active for at least six months from the conclusion of the disaster incident. Missing animals may wander in as strays when they cannot find their way home in a vastly changed environment, or they may have been presented for veterinary care at a facility not active in the initial response to this incident. We need to allow time for people to contact us regarding such animals they may have in their care.
We will allow volunteers and people who have been unable to find their own animals to sign up as potential foster parents and possible eventual adopters of a specific animal, in case that animal is unable to be reunited with its original owners or is relinquished by those owners. We will never support premature adoption of any animal that has not gone through proper protocol.
What fostering and adoption must occur will be done in strict accordance with applicable law.