Get Them Home and Help Them Stay There: Disaster Response & Radical RTO

At the start of the pandemic, animal shelters focused on moving homeless pets out, clearing space for the pets of the sick and deceased who had no other place to go. Now as hurricane season and raging wildfires bring new issues to the forefront, the goals have changed. Kim Alboum takes a hard look at the situation and suggests an important paradigm shift.


As a person who has facilitated the transport of over 20,000 animals in my 10-year career in animal welfare, hurricanes (or any disaster) put me on edge. Where is the storm going hit? How bad will the flooding be? Should we move the pets out of the shelters to make room, or wait until the storm moves closer? What is the population at the shelter who needs to be evacuated? Where could these animals be transferred for best outcome? My mind always went to moving shelter pets as far away from the point of impact as possible. 

Then came COVID-19, and a new question emerged on my list: Am I taking away someone’s loved pet?

Back in March, animal shelters braced for an unprecedented disaster. As the pandemic spread across the United States, the goal became to move homeless pets out of the shelter, clearing space for the pets of the sick (and deceased), who had no other place to go. Animal shelters called out to the community for help with foster and adoption—and boy, was that call answered! They also reached out to each other for support and guidance, creating an even stronger network of expertise and collaboration than what had previously existed in the field. 

This is when I found the glaring crack in the foundation of my work.

As we moved further into the spring, the affordable housing crisis loomed. Mass evictions were expected, resulting in more people and their pets homeless. There was (and is) not enough affordable housing to support the vast need. This issue was present before COVID-19, but I missed it. My job was to move pets in crisis from overwhelmed shelters, disaster, and cruelty, so returning pets to communities where they originated was not in my purview. They were at the shelter, homeless. I focused on the destination that would provide the best outcome for them.

The COVID-19 response created an opportunity for me to partner with Amanda Arrington, Senior Director of Pets for Life for the Humane Society of the United States. I listened and learned about affordable housing and the systemic inequity throughout animal welfare. Had I caused damage by moving adoptable pets from overwhelmed shelters out of the region? The answer is complicated—but yes. I did. 

Many of the pets in animal shelters actually already have places they consider home 
Perhaps not the ideal situation, but the majority are loved. Short stray holds and punitive measures prevent these pets from going home to their families. Return to owner (RTO) was just not the top priority for the majority of shelters. The priority was moving them out of the shelter and into loving homes, even if that meant a different loving home. Amanda put it simply for me:

“Imagine a scruffy little dog who has a family who loves him, doing the usual rounds of the neighborhood. He gets picked up by animal control. Animal control takes him back to the shelter, where there is a 5-day stray hold and a fine of $100 for running loose. The family knows that there is a fine to pick up the dog, but they can’t afford it because they need it for medications or food. While this is painful for the family, it is also terrifying for the dog. He had a home and people he knew. He is now in a loud, scary shelter for 5 days, loaded into a crate, put on a truck, and driven for hours. He arrives at a new shelter, ends up in a home with people he does not know, wondering where his family is.”

The silver lining in our shared tragedy
My mind immediately went to how we could fix this systemic problem, and I was not alone. Shelters with strong RTO programs, like Guilford County Animal Shelter in North Carolina and Idaho’s Panhandle Animal Shelter, have been sharing their expertise with other shelters. The two have different approaches, but they were focused on the same goal: get them home and help them stay there! The Human Animal Support Services (HASS) model, National Animal Care and Control Association, and others, were pushing hard to keep animals out of shelters by leaning more into the community to assist with getting them back home. While this concept is not new to many shelters, the animal welfare community shifted toward radical RTO programs as part of the COVID-19 response. They say that in every tragedy there is a silver lining, and I believe this is ours. 

Until all shelters employ radical RTO programs, long distance transport during natural disaster is going to make me cringe. I am certainly not saying it should be stopped altogether. I just wonder how many loved pets will be forced to start new lives in faraway places because the fine is too high for their families, or because it is too complex a process to lean on the community to get the pet back home. 

If the pets stay closer, they have a better chance of going home
But there is good news: we can do better. Through continued outreach in communities and elimination of punitive fines imposed on people who cannot afford them, we can drastically decrease the number of pets transported away from their families. If more pets are going home, intake will decrease. If intake decreases, capacity to assist during natural disasters will increase. If capacity increases, there will be space within the state or region to move shelter pets who are in the path of a storm. If the pets stay closer, they have a better chance of going home.

The large number of strong, progressive animal shelters in the country makes the network nimble during disaster. By working together, they quickly create a plan of action. Escambia County Animal Shelter in the Florida Panhandle is in a community that floods. With Hurricane Sally baring down on them, they called for help. Louisiana SPCA came to the rescue, transporting the pets from the Escambia shelter to Tampa Bay SPCA.  

Once the storm passes, it is a great time to hold statewide adoption events. COVID-19 has proven to us that the community wants to help during disasters. Let’s harness shelter partnerships, community support and radical RTO to localize disaster response. Understandably, this is not always possible, but when it is, let’s give it a shot. We owe it to the pets and their people in our communities to do everything within our power to keep them together. We are the “animal people,” which makes us, by default, the “people people.” 

Do you have shelter partners within your state? Set a goal to make 2021 the year you build out your disaster support network and sharpen RTO programs. Look for additional support from The Association through webinars and training.


Photo: Louisiana SPCA


Kim Alboum

Kim Alboum co-chairs The Association’s Disaster Planning and Response Committee. During her time at The Humane Society of the United States, where she first served as State Director for North Carolina, followed by Shelter Policy and Outreach Director, she spent 10 years creating nationwide partnerships that resulted in the placement of thousands of animals who were victims of cruelty and natural disasters.


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