‘It’s really hard to find them’: Utah-based nonprofit has tough job of reuniting people and lost pets after Hurricane Harvey

And it doesn’t look like it’ll end anytime soon for the nonprofit, which is sheltering dogs, cats and more after devastating floodwaters and winds displaced Texas families.

(Rachel Molenda | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeanna Buskirk, a vet tech from Fort Mohave, Ariz., feeds treats to a dog at Best Friends Animal Society's shelter in Conroe, Texas, on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017.

Conroe, Texas • They came by the dozens, friends and family members looking desperately for missing pets, hoping to find dogs and cats displaced as a result of the massive hurricane that devastated the state.

Some pets were terrified by the roaring winds brought by Hurricane Harvey and ran away as the storm rolled in. Some were rescued by the many boats that scoured the streets-turned-rivers after the floodwaters swept in.

Harvey created a vast need to care for thousands of pets that will stretch on for months. That’s why the Utah-based nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society has set up shop at the Montgomery County fairgrounds about an hour north of downtown Houston.

The group, along with a network of dozens of volunteers that include animal control, veterinarians, dog walkers and others, has become a central force in helping Texans reconnect with their furry friends.

“The night before the storm came, he had gotten out and they weren’t able to find him,” said Amanda Concord, who went to the fairgrounds Wednesday and walked with a volunteer up and down a half-dozen aisles of crates housing displaced dogs.

Concord was looking for Bear, a friend’s male blue heeler. She teared up as as she started touring the fairgrounds shelter with Brianna Laster, a volunteer who drove in from Las Vegas to help Best Friends‘ at the makeshift shelter.

Concord left without finding Bear, a common experience for many who visited the fairgrounds.

“We’re going to keep looking and knocking on doors,” she said, adding there’s a Facebook page with over 8,000 people sharing resources to find lost pets. “Maybe someone picked him up and brought him in before the storm.”

Paul Thorpe walked row-by-row looking for a dog he’d never seen in person. His granddaughter’s 3-month-old pit bull got frightened during the storm, escaped and hadn’t been seen since. Thorpe, too, didn’t find the animal he was looking for.

There have been about two-dozen reconnections at the shelter, which will be in place in the Houston area through November. Others arrived and rescued animals whose owners could no longer keep them.

It’s hard work connecting pets and people in America’s fourth-largest city, much of which was flooded during a storm that brought a record 50-plus inches of rainfall. Some neighborhoods and nearby towns in southeast Texas remain underwater. Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed.

“Once they’re getting shuffled around, it’s really hard to find them,” said Judah Battista, co-founder of Best Friends.

Best Friends has done this before, mobilizing in response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and left thousands of pets stranded in 2005. 

The shelter in Conroe has handled nearly 1,000 pets and on Thursday housed more than 600 dogs, cats and parakeets. Some were shipped to other cities, including Salt Lake City. Soon, Best Friends and other groups working together on the effort will open another operation in Houston’s nearby NRG Arena.

“Imagine having to leave your house and, for whatever devastating reason, you had to leave a family member behind,” said Eric Rayvid, a spokesman for Best Friends, which advocates for ending most euthanizations in shelters and operates a sanctuary in Kanab that‘s home to about 1,600 animals.

Ralph Mansch and friends drove 48,000 pounds of supplies to the fairgrounds from Las Vegas. They left the fairgrounds with three abandoned dogs, en route to Hearts Alive Village, a shelter in Las Vegas.

Lights were turned out Thursday during nap time for dogs in the massive warehouse serving as the main shelter for strays. Vets cared for dogs, vaccinating them or giving them fluids. A puppy this week got a blood transfusion and ran around a horse pen that was used for a family of newborns and their mother.

In another large area, piles of donated food, crates, toys and other items reached about 10 feet high. More trucks pulled in with donations and volunteers scurried about helping to organize the stockpile. Worn-out volunteers received massages from a resident who stopped by to help.

Rayvid said Best Friends now has more than enough supplies to ensure it can take care of the animals and send materials to other shelters in the area. The group also created a landing page – BestFriends.org/HurricaneHarvey – that lists other resources for finding lost pets.

”We know that we’re here for the duration,” Rayvid said. “The folks in direct care of the animals ... they‘re really the heroes of this initiative.”