What We Should Learn from Bixby's Reunion With His Family
Bixby's journey was a long one, nearly 1,300 miles from New Orleans, Louisiana to Minnesota and then another 1,300 miles from Minnesota back to New Orleans nine months later. During the time in between, he touched the hearts of many people. His story impacted my life so much that my eyes still well up with tears just thinking about him, even though twelve years have passed since the last time I saw him.
Bixby was one of about 250 animals that a team I led brought to Minnesota in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He was also one of several pets we managed to reunite with their families. Bixby's reunion, as well as a few of the other reunions, were captured in a segment of "On the Road with Jason Davis" by Twin Cities Eyewitness 5 News in July of 2006. The images accompanying this story were taken from their video of Bixby's reunion with his family. In it, Bixby, a normally mellow, low-key hound mix explodes with joy when he realizes he is back with his family, while his family cries and buries their faces in Bixby's fur. The reaction of Bixby and his family were typical of the reunions we experienced. They were clearly family members who missed each other, who had been separated by tragedies beyond their control. And, while many of the people we met had lost their homes, cars, jobs and more, nearly all of them told us that the loss of their pets was the most difficult of all.
For one of the families we met during Katrina, the loss of their pets was more than they could handle. After unsuccessfully searching the disorganized and largely broken animal rescue system for weeks trying to find his pets, one pet owner hanged himself from a tree in his mother's front yard. We learned his story months later, because his mother continued searching for her son's lost dogs. Goldie, one of her son's dogs, was another of the pets we returned to New Orleans.
In every case I know of, family members who lost pets in that disaster searched for their pets for months, because finding them was nearly impossible. The reason I am thinking of them and writing about them today is the fact that, if we had followed normal protocols, none of those reunions would have happened, because in the days and weeks following Katrina most organizations held animals for days or weeks. But, the reality was, that it took months for people to track down their pets as they were also trying to rebuild their lives amid total chaos.
Today, following the animal rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I am disturbed by some of what I am seeing coming from the animal rescue community. Dogs, cats and other animals are being dispersed across the nation in a disorganized and chaotic way. And, like during Katrina, the organizations involved are making no promise to keep the pets alive or to keep them available for their families should those families be located. In disasters of this magnitude, that is, in my opinion, simply not acceptable.
Of all of the rescue organizations I know of that worked during Katrina, our team had - by far - the highest return to owner rate I have heard of. About 20% of the pets we sheltered were reunited with their families. The primary reason that was true is that we committed to keeping the pets safe and not adopting them to anyone else for a minimum of six months. Our foster homes knew that, even if they fell in love with the pets they were fostering, they could not adopt them if their owners were found, which brings me back to the other half of Bixby's story: His foster family fell head over heels in love with his sweet, goofy soul. They told me of their desire to adopt him.
As the months ticked by, and Bixby's family had not been found, their hopes of keeping him grew and grew. It was literally days before the deadline, when we were heading back to New Orleans with a van full of our final reunions, that we made a positive match with Bixby's family. Though it was difficult news for his foster family, when they brought him back for his final send off with many tears and hugs and a bunch of toys and treats, they said it was really hard, but that they knew they were doing the right thing. Bixby's reaction to being reunited with his family proved they were right.
Not only did we keep pets available to their families for a minimum of 6 months, we actively engaged in efforts to search for people looking for pets. It was a lot of really hard work. Sadly, it was the exception, not the rule. So, I am writing this blog post as a plea to those shelters and rescues taking animals out of harms way during the Harvey rescues: please do the right thing rather than the easy thing. Honor these pets as the cherished family members that they are. Their families are likely looking for them and have little or no resources available to them to try to do that.