A flood of emotion: Alumni connect during Hurricane Harvey animal rescue

I’ve always been amazed and thankful that I’ve been able to be a veterinarian.  I’m thankful for my education that allowed me to do this. -Dr. Jay Tischendorf, ’97

Three Colorado State University veterinary graduates dropped everything to volunteer during Hurricane Harvey in Houston in September. Drs. Jay Tischendorf, Robyn O’Kane and Debera Butler tended hundreds of animals at the Rescue and Reunite Center at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds and the Pet Reunion Pavilion at the NRG Arena. Here are their stories:

Dr. Jay Tischendorf, DVM class of 1997

Merck Animal Health Companion Animal Professional Services Manager, Conroe, Texas

Dr. Jay Tischendorf in blue scrubs with a rescued dog
Dr. Jay Tischendorf, CSU alumnus, volunteered with Houston animal rescue operations during Hurricane Harvey. (Jay Tischendorf photo)

I travel a lot for my work, providing training for veterinary clients, and I live near Houston, so when Harvey hit, I was basically grounded. I don’t see clients in my day-to-day work, and all of a sudden I was having to vaccinate and care for 600 animals almost overnight. But I had a lot of support from technicians and practicing veterinarians who were volunteering too.

The Best Friends Animal Society in Utah and the American Humane Association brought in teams to help staff the makeshift temporary shelter, and we worked closely with the Montgomery County Animal Control. Food companies sent 18-wheelers to cook for the volunteers, and local restaurants would drop food off as well.

It was like a cross between MASH, a world wrestling event and a track meet. I worked about 15 hours a day for two weeks straight. (See photos from the Montgomery County Courier.)

How did you handle seeing so much need?

You wish you could take them all home. For the most part these were street dogs and bayou dogs and swamp dogs — the “Cajun Navy” was pulling them out of the water. Some were owned, some relinquished, but almost all were loving and gentle. You wish you could take them all home.

I came home some of those nights and cried. I worried about what was going to happen to them. But literally, groups all over the country were lining up to help, and within days, some of these animals were being transported out to caregivers. (Life Is Better Rescue, based in Lakewood, Colo., helped move 94 of those animals out of the Houston area.)

Is there something special about your education at CSU that prepared you for this?

One of the amazing things happened while I was working in this temporary shelter in the Montgomery County fairgrounds with volunteers from all over the country, and I was talking to a veterinarian who had basically shut her clinic down to come to Houston, and it turned out she was a CSU grad too! It was Robyn O’Kane. I said “Hey, that’s cool, we’re representing CSU here.”

One of our professors was Wayne Wingfield. He was a board-certified surgeon who pioneered emergency medicine and critical care, and later became an authority on disaster medicine. All that ties back to CSU. Veterinarians in general have that ethic, a deep-rooted sense of selflessness, service and sacrifice. I’ve always been amazed and thankful that I’ve been able to be a veterinarian. I’m thankful for my education that allowed me to do this.

Dr. Robyn O’Kane, DVM class of 2014

Medical Director, National Spay Alliance Foundation, Dalton, Ga.

smiling woman with black dog
Dr. Robyn O’Kane, a 2014 DVM graduate, traveled from Georgia to Houston to help out during Hurricane Harvey. (CSU photo)

The founder of National Spay Alliance, and I collected donations from people in our area and transported our mobile surgical rig full of pet food, water, medical supplies, etc. to Houston. Once there, we stayed for a few days and I provided medical help for the incoming animals and the 500-plus animals that were already being housed at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds.

My passion has always been working in underserved areas (that’s why I’m in rural Georgia). I’ve also always wanted to be involved in disaster relief work. My organization was specifically contacted to see if we could lend a hand, so within three hours, I had my temporary Texas license, a pet sitter arranged for my own critters, and we had a plan to collect supplies the next day and get on the road.

We worked from 7 a.m. until about 9 p.m. doing exams on incoming animals, giving vaccines, deworming them, heartworm testing them, etc. I also started a project of going back over the records for the first 400 dogs to find out who had arrived before there were heartworm tests, rabies vaccines, etc to fill in the blanks. We got everyone tested and provided heartworm and flea/tick prevention for all dogs, and treated whatever issues we saw. Lots of skin disease. One dog had some twigs stuck in her rectum, so I needed to sedate her to remove them. There were, unfortunately, a lot of pregnant animals. Some were giving birth there in the fairgrounds. Very sad stuff.

How did your education at CSU prepare you for this experience?

Long, hard days 🙂 Seriously, I think the broad and strong education at CSU is what has helped me with every aspect of my veterinary career. I still remember key educational points from school and use them in practice. In Houston, I relied on some of this knowledge as well as the knowledge I’ve gained since graduating.

I think the best thing about going to Houston was to see so many people so invested in the welfare of these poor animals. The people from Best Friends, Animal Humane Association, and the Montgomery County Animal Shelter as well as all the other individual volunteers were all there for one purpose: helping the animals. There was a guy from some local coffee shop was there brewing fresh, amazing coffee. People brought food, snacks, water, soda, Gatorade. It was just great.

What did you learn from your time in Houston?

The big take-away for me, especially in comparison with what happened with Irma (which was virtually nothing compared to Harvey), is there are lots of areas in this country that need education, population control, disease control, and a shift in how people view animals. Also, veterinary schools in non-disease-endemic regions really need to strongly teach all of these diseases because of the transport involved in rescues (due to natural disasters or otherwise). Teaching students about the regional issues with overpopulation and lack of animal welfare resources would be helpful. That’s what’s important to me.

Dr. Debera Butler, DVM class of 1993

Merck Animal Health Senior Professional Services Veterinarian, Phoenix

woman with white dog
Dr. Debera Butler, a 1993 CSU DVM alumna, volunteered to help displaced pets during Hurricane Harvey. (Debera Butler photo)

I was mesmerized by the news and I just kept thinking I’ve got to do something, so I reached out to Jay to see how I could help. He gave me contact information for Dr. Katie Eick, who I think is an absolute hero. Somehow this amazing veterinarian was able to get a website going right away to connect volunteers, HarveyVolunteerVets.com. The Wednesday after Labor Day, Sept. 6, I flew to Houston and went straight to the convention center and was there til 10:30 that night. I did this as a veterinarian that loves animals and I wanted to do something. Plus, most of these vets in this area were dealing with their own nightmare.

What was the scene like that first night?

The first 24 hours, people were outside the convention center huddled over their pets refusing to go in without their pets. There was one building where people got to sleep with their pets. At one point there were 700 animals in that section. You’d have a cot with their human and their dog in a crate right next to them. The people needed the pets and the pets needed the people.

I really got to know the people and their pets. There was a lady that told me she was being abused by her husband, when she got to the shelter and saw so many police officers around, she felt comfortable telling them. Her husband was taken away. I then helped her research battered women’s shelters that allowed pets.

We did a lot of vaccines and deworming, flea and tick treatments, and injuries. Everything was donated — medicine, crates, food, leashes, you name it — basically they put together a complete animal hospital.

What did you learn from your experience?

I was only there four days, but it was super-rewarding, one of the best things I’ve ever done in my entire life. I learned don’t just sit on the couch and say “I wish I could help,” but go do it. (Watch a Phoenix television report on Butler and her work in Houston.)

What advice do you have for rescue workers in the next disaster?

The number one thing that needs to be standard practice in a disaster is that the state needs to grant emergency veterinary licenses. Also let animals and people be together in the same exact shelter. The police officers were saying “I cannot believe the people are not stressed out — because they’re with their pets.” It’s a truly beautiful thing.