Long before emergency alerts ring out, members of the Humane Society of the United States' Animal Rescue Team are ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Armed with specialized training and cutting-edge equipment, these elite professionals answer the call for help wherever animals are in harm’s way.

They transport animals out of storms’ deadly paths and brave the waters for those left behind. They set up emergency shelters to provide refuge for animal victims of wildfires, earthquakes and tornadoes. And they work to prevent animals from being caught in these dire situations in the first place by helping communities develop disaster preparedness and response plans.

The work is hard and the hours are long, but no team is better equipped to respond when disaster strikes.

“Whether the team is rescuing hundreds of animals from a large-scale cruelty situation in pouring rain, driving boats through hazardous waters in flooded neighborhoods to remove animals from danger or providing comfort and care to rescued animals in a shelter, they do it with compassion, love and grace,” says Jessica Johnson, senior director of the Animal Rescue Team.

In this article, you’ll learn more about our Animal Rescue Team and how you can help support our lifesaving work.

Over the past five years, our Animal Rescue Team has:
US Map highlighting the states where ART has responded to emergencies
responded 115 times

in 33 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

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BEEN HELPED BY 1,000+ volunteers

who donated more than 68,000 hours of their time.

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assisted in emergency situations

such as hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes and wildfires.

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Helped 23,000+ animals

all together.

OUR TEAM: As part of the most effective animal welfare organization in the world, the HSUS Animal Rescue Team assists in situations other groups can’t. With two dozen experienced and highly trained members, a nationwide database of skilled volunteers and a network of more than 300 shelter and rescue partners across the country, we have the capacity to respond to situations where hundreds of animals’ lives are in danger and ensure adoptable pets find the homes they deserve.

“We’re often only able to share a short video or a glimpse from a photograph of the work that we do, but there are so many other moving parts and important people involved that make these rescues possible,” Johnson says. “We spend days and sometimes weeks planning and preparing every detail to the best of our ability to ensure the greatest and safest outcome for the animals, our team and the public.”

OUR RESPONSE: When we hear news of a severe storm approaching or other emergency situation, we immediately reach out to shelters and agencies in the area to offer assistance. Because we are a nonprofit organization (and not a law enforcement agency), we must receive a request for help from a local government agency before we can respond. This protocol is in place to ensure that the response is organized and that resources are sent to where they are needed most.

With a signed agreement in place, we can quickly deploy team members and equipment to affected areas. Depending on the need, we can transport adoptable animals from shelters to other parts of the country, establish emergency shelters to house animals caught in the field and rescue stranded animals.

We strongly encourage people with pets to have a disaster preparedness plan to help keep their pets safe and to always evacuate with their animals. We work year-round with communities to ensure plans are in place to help residents with evacuation and provide shelter for them and their pets.

Volunteers & staff help the HSUS Animal Rescue Team unload animals from their shelter onto the big rig for transportation
Volunteers & staff from Lee County Humane Society help the Humane Society of the United States Animal Rescue Team unload animals from their shelter at the Auburn University Airport for transportation. Parts of Lee County Alabama suffered massive damage from a recent tornado.
Phil Skinner
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AP Images for The HSUS

OUR FLEET AND EQUIPMENT: The rescue team has access to an array of fully equipped vehicles and other materials to assist them in the field, including:

  • Three flat-bottom boats to rescue animals and transport supplies in flood conditions.
  • A 50-foot, climate-controlled shelter trailer, affectionately known as the “Big Rig,” that can transport up to 120 animals at a time.
  • A horse trailer capable of hauling up to six equines at a time.
  • Three climate-controlled transport vehicles for small animals, one of which includes a crime lab to assist law enforcement on the scene of a cruelty situation.
  • Extended-cab pickup trucks to haul equipment trailers and safely transport team members in rough conditions.
  • An enclosed trailer fully stocked with disaster response equipment.
  • Animal housing materials such as crates that team members can use to set up emergency shelters in a disaster zone.
  • Personal protective equipment and first-aid supplies for all responders and sheltering personnel.
Diana Robinson holding her cat.

Profile: Diane Robinson

Disaster response manager, HSUS Animal Rescue Team

Location: Georgia

Family life: I live with my wife, four dogs, three cats and a horse.

My role: When there is not an active or immediately pending disaster, I train people and organizations on preparedness and how to develop disaster plans, as well as provide training for law enforcement. A big part of the work is to build relationships around the country with agreements to aid in disaster and partnerships to work with the Animal Rescue Team in the field. During disasters, I represent the HSUS on state and federal coordination calls and assist organizations with needs such as transporting animals out of impact areas and accessing resources. If we have boots-on-the-ground operations, I lead the team in the field response. During cruelty situations, I assist in whatever capacity I am needed.

Background: I got my bachelor’s degree in art, focused on photography, at Penn State and worked at a high school in the art department and as a track coach. After heading to Colorado to get my master’s and teaching license, I was a teacher when 9/11 happened. Like so many people, I was called to volunteerism and joined a mountain search and rescue team. I later worked as a trainer for several animal welfare organizations. After six years and nearly 30 disaster and cruelty responses, I took a break from disaster response to work as the director of Jackson County Animal Shelter in Mississippi and then Atlanta Humane Society before returning to national disaster work with the HSUS.

Most memorable moment in the field: This is hard to narrow down, but probably my first flood response where I was assigned to work with a couple puppies picked up from a street dog mom. They were about 4 months old and had never been handled, were scared and reactive when you tried to handle them, but they wanted to connect. In just a few days, one was able to be handled by anyone and the other pup just by me. He was so bonded to me that the director asked me to take him, which I of course did. He was a constant reminder why doing this work made a difference.

Tools or resources I can’t live without: Crazy Creek (a little foldout chair), a cable lead, my purple Leatherman and crunchy Cheetos (I don’t know, it’s a disaster thing).

One thing I wish everyone knew about my work: It is not for everyone. It is long, hard hours in heartbreaking conditions but the reward you get is from the complete joy on someone’s face when their animal is back in their arms. It means everything and gives you the energy to go back and save more.

One thing I wish every pet owner would do to prepare for a disaster: Put together and keep stocked a to-go kit for the whole family (see "Ready for anything"). When advised to leave, they grab their kits, pets and family and go. Too many people aren’t prepared or wait too long expecting to call 911 for rescue. It just doesn’t work that way.

When I’m off the clock: You’ll find me cuddling with my family, usually with a couple dogs and at least one cat on my lap every time I sit down, kayaking and hanging out in the pool.


 

HSUS responder comforts neglected dogs in a run down trailer.
The HSUS assists the Dixie County Sheriff’s Office with a large-scale alleged severe neglect case of approximately 140 dogs in February, 2020.
Meredith Lee
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The HSUS

OUR TRAINING: Team members complete intense training so they can help animals (and stay safe) in any situation. Throughout the year, the team receives specialized instruction in areas such as handling of large and small animals, technical rope skills, boat operations, flood water and swiftwater rescue techniques, and hazmat response and other trainings from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Our team also provides free training to shelters and rescues, which greatly improves their ability to prepare for and act during a disaster.

OUR ‘DESK JOBS’: When not deployed for disaster work, our team members are hard at work assisting local authorities with animal-related crime investigations, expanding our volunteer program, maintaining our fleet and equipment and staying up-to-date on shelter best practices—among many other things! The team also attends training sessions to ensure their skills stay sharp and ready.

Dogs being unloaded from a plane by HSUS staff.
Arriving pets are unloaded as the Humane Society of the United States undertakes a Tropical Storm Barry transport arrival Friday, July 12, 2019 in Manassas, VA.
Eric Kayne
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AP Images for The HSUS

OUR VOLUNTEERS: When the Animal Rescue Team responds to a cruelty case or natural disaster, we call in highly skilled volunteers to help provide care to animals in our emergency shelters. Animal rescue volunteers come from all walks of life, generously giving their time and talents to help animals in need. Whether it’s handling animals, cleaning kennels or performing administrative tasks, their work is a key part of our mission to save lives.

All rescue volunteers must be at least 18 years old and complete FEMA courses and HSUS training on safety, emergency management and other critical aspects of emergency care.

Gordon Smith with his dog

Profile: Gordon Smith

Volunteer, Animal Rescue Team

Location: Florida

Family life: I live with my wife, two dogs and two cats.

My role: I deploy with the Animal Rescue Team to help in disaster response and cruelty situations. Assist with setting up emergency shelters, handling animals in the field, caring for animals after a rescue, basically doing anything they need me to do. 

Background: I served as a police officer for 26 years, including time as a K-9 officer in the narcotics division. I currently volunteer with the HSUS and other animal welfare organizations. 

Most memorable moment in the field: That’s a really hard question because there are so many. I would say working during the California wildfires, getting the chance to see people be reunited with their pets after such heartbreak and loss. Spayathon™ for Puerto Rico also stands out because of the number of people and animals we’ve been able to help, to see how genuinely welcomed and appreciated our work is there. People lined up for hours before we opened the doors, and they greeted us with smiles and patience, and the love they had for their pets. It’s an amazing experience.

Tools or resources I can’t live without: My calm attitude serves me better than any physical tool. It takes a lot to rattle me, so no matter what situation I’m able to stay calm and work toward the best possible outcome. I follow directions and adjust to changes easily. Being flexible is a must on deployments.

When I’m off the clock: I work out to stay in shape so I can keep up with the work in the field. I’m a big guy, and there’s a lot of “Hey, Gordon!” when there’s some heavy lifting to be done. I’m ready whenever they need me, but I’m hoping there’s a day they no longer will. Now that would be a quite a day.

My advice for anyone thinking about volunteering: Don’t wait. If you’ve got the training, apply. If you don’t have the training, get the training and apply. It will be the most rewarding thing you ever do in your life.


Covid-19 Virus IconCrisis response during COVID-19

As hurricane season approaches, Johnson and her team are evaluating their protocols and preparing to respond in the safest, most effective way possible. “We are working through the many possible scenarios for response during a pandemic and figuring out how to achieve the most impact from afar, if needed.”

Volunteer with ART

Animal rescue volunteers work with our Animal Rescue Team to help save animals who are the victims of illegal animal cruelty and natural disasters. Think you have what it takes to join our ranks? Don’t wait! Apply now to make sure you have the proper training so we can count on you when disaster strikes. 

Arriving pets are unloaded as the HSUS undertakes a hurricane transport
Eric Kayne / AP Images for The HSUS

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This story originally appeared in our award-winning magazine for members, All Animals. Get informative and inspiring content like this delivered right to your door.

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