Operation Reunite: A Community of Compassion

Veterinarians across the state stepped up during Hurricane Harvey to help displaced animals

They named her Rena. She most likely was the oldest of 25 Harvey rescues that Animal Care Clinic in Wallisville, Texas, took in from the Houston SPCA in the wake of the devastating storm. The owner of the practice, TVMA member Mel Whitten, DVM, who described Rena as a “very quiet and sweet” dog, provided medical care and shelter to her and the other rescues as they waited to return to their owners or find forever homes. The ‘sweet’ Rena found a home with Dr. Whitten’s client who was looking for a friend for her dog.

“Rena fit in perfectly with what they needed,” Dr. Whitten said. “They hit it off immediately. We are so happy she is in a loving home.”

This adoption fulfilled one of the goals of Operation Reunite, a program created by TVMA and the Houston SPCA and funded by the Texas Veterinary Medical Foundation (TVMF) that paired volunteer veterinarians with animals displaced by the storm. The Houston SPCA served as the hub, rescuing and transporting homeless animals to veterinary clinics across Texas. Veterinarians provided necessary medical care and either boarded the animals or asked clients to foster them. TVMF offset the costs of veterinary care and expenses associated with fostering, such as bedding and food. The primary goal was to return as many animals as possible to their owners within 45 days of the animal being delivered for fostering. Clinics that had animals that were not reunited at the end of the 45 days found new homes for the animals or worked with the Houston SPCA and other organizations to find forever homes. Rena was one of the animals that wasn’t claimed within the 45-day period and, therefore, was up for adoption.

“We made a huge difference in the lives of these animals, even the ones we were not able to adopt out,” Dr. Whitten said. “We gave them health care, shelter, food and water and TLC at a time when they needed it most. Had it not been for the people who rescued them from the hurricane, the SPCA who took them in, the volunteers who transported them, and yes—us—these animals may not have survived.”

Dr. Whitten is not only referring to her practice but to other practices as well, specifically the 33 veterinary clinics that also participated in the program. As a result of these clinics’ involvement, empathy and countless hours of service, 350 cats and dogs received shelter and medical care. Of those rescue animals, 46 reunited with their owners, and 219 found forever homes, according to Houston SPCA Emergency Management Director Dawn Blackmar, DVM. The remainder returned to the Houston SPCA or to other rescue organizations.

“As a veterinarian, it was very humbling for me to see the outpouring of generosity,” Dr. Blackmar said. “It was a huge commitment for some of these clinics to take in three, four or five animals and commit to keeping them for 45 days and providing veterinary care that they might need. It just reaffirmed to me how special veterinarians are and how compassionate they are.”

Compassion led TVMA member Susan Hopper, DVM, the owner of Cypress Creek Pet Care in Cedar Park, Texas, to house 26 dogs. She and her staff had never taken in so many animals without medical histories, and they soon discovered that many of the dogs were heartworm-positive and hadn’t been spayed or neutered. Dr. Hopper treated the animals for skin infections and wounds and spayed and neutered those that hadn’t undergone the procedure.

“We went through that process of trying to get them healthy and trying to keep them from eventually passing on any diseases to our client animals that we were boarding,” Dr. Hopper said. “It was quite the logistical endeavor.”

To encourage the local community to foster and adopt the rescues, Dr. Hopper’s practice’s parent company, Pathway Partners, sent e-blasts and posted pictures of the animals on their website. One of her colleagues from California saw a picture of a rescue dog on the website, flew in town for a meeting, met the pooch she would later name Todd and drove back home with him in a rental car. As for the other animals, two reunited with their owners, six went to rescue organizations and staff members and clients adopted the remaining 18.

“To see animals find either their people or their next forever home was wonderful closure,” Dr. Hopper said. “It gives one a sense of service to the community and to really fulfill our mission of helping animals in a very unselfish manner.”

Serving the community also was important to lifetime TVMA member Ann Cross, DVM, owner of Olmos Park Animal Hospital in San Antonio, who sheltered and cared for five dogs and four cats.

“I was honored and privileged to help serve and give back,” Dr. Cross said. “It’s important to give back to the community in any way you can. To be able to take the animals in when other people couldn’t was a blessing and a gift for everyone involved.”

All nine animals her clinic took in ultimately found homes. Her clients adopted most of the rescues, including an older Chihuahua a client initially fostered before making the situation permanent.

“I thought he would be a really good companion for not only that client but also her dog,” Dr. Cross said. “She fostered her and ended up falling in love with her and adopting her.”

None of these success stories would be possible without a few leaders coming together: TVMA/TVMF Executive Director Chris Copeland, JD, CAE; TVMA Immediate Past President Daniel Posey, DVM, DABVP; and TVMA Shelter Medicine Committee member S. Kent Glenn, DVM. Dr. Glenn was the idea man behind Operation Reunite.  He was inspired by a rescue effort during Hurricane Katrina in which Aledo Vet Clinic, where he practiced at the time, helped rescue, transport and foster 65 to 75 pets.

“The effort was 100-percent successful for our clients who wanted to help, our staff that became deeply committed to helping and the families who were able to be reunited with their pets,” Dr. Glenn recalled.

With this successful model in mind, Dr. Glenn approached Dr. Posey, Copeland, fellow Shelter Medicine Committee members and TVMA President-Elect Richard Wall, DVM, about using veterinary clinics to temporarily house animals. This would lighten the load for shelters like the Houston SPCA while they faced a significant influx of animals.

“I remember getting a call from Dr. Posey and Dr. Glenn and Chris about the concept of Operation Reunite,” Dr. Blackmar of the Houston SPCA said. “They felt like it was an effective way to shelter animals that had been displaced by the storm. We were absolutely delighted to be able to work with them to develop a plan as it fit for Hurricane Harvey.”

Copeland informed TVMA members of the program through e-blasts and compiled a list of veterinarians and clinics interested in participating. For each clinic, he tracked the number of animals they could accept based on size and species.

“I was blown away by the number of veterinarians who were willing to help,” Copeland said. “It’s been awesome to see how willing they are to step up.”

The Houston SPCA reviewed the list and contacted veterinarians to learn more about their capacity and preferred transportation timeline. Houston SPCA staff performed intake examinations, gave vaccinations and provided treatment for the animals before a group of volunteers and staff transported the animals to clinics across the state.

“I was impressed by the efficiency of Operation Reunite,” Dr. Whitten of Animal Care Clinic said. “I have always believed the veterinary profession is the most caring and compassionate in the world.”

Dr. Whitten also expressed appreciation for TVMF, which funded Operation Reunite and also awarded a disaster relief grant to Animal Care Clinic. Her clinic was one of 45 veterinary practices that received grants from TVMF. (Clinics in need of financial assistance for disaster relief efforts can contact TVMF Director Leah Ann Tibbitts at ltibbitts@tvma.org or 512-452-4224 for a disaster relief grant application.)

“It was satisfying that I was able to coordinate efforts in a way to help the doctors take care of these pets and to hopefully help people be reunited with their pets,” said TVMF Director Leah Ann Tibbitts.

Linda Cantu is reunited with her dog Tank at the NRG Arena in Houston, TX on Saturday, September 16, 2017.
(Photo/Scott Dalton)

Without TVMF’s financial support, Operation Reunite wouldn’t have come to fruition, according to Dr. Posey. The foundation’s involvement was crucial for the success of the program, as was the Houston SPCA’s coordination and the veterinary community’s generosity of time and resources.

“Veterinarians line up to help,” Dr. Posey said. “That’s what our profession does, and I always stand in awe when you go through something like this and you see what an individual practice did for these animals. The care that was given, the amount of time that was donated to this and the efforts that were made were just tremendous. They did this with no thought except making sure the animals were well taken care of. It’s a great profession we get to serve in.”


Article courtesy of TVMA Media Coordinator, Dena Goldstein.