Last year was tough, to put it mildly, for people and animals in disaster-prone regions of the world. In 2017, the United States experienced one of the most active hurricane seasons — as well as one of the most destructive wildfire seasons — on record. However, amid the reports of devastation and loss we also caught glimpses of that silver lining Mister Fred Rogers so famously reminded us to seek during scary times: the helpers.

To find out more about disaster relief efforts for animals and people, we spoke with Heather Cammisa of St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in New Jersey. Heather is one of the helpers.

As President and CEO of St. Hubert’s, Heather oversees not only the operations of multiple shelters across the state, but also a range of community services and advocacy initiatives for animals and their guardians. She has also been instrumental in launching the Sister Shelter WayStation — a program that, in just two years, has already provided hope and homes for thousands of shelter animals across the country.

Before St. Hubert’s, Heather worked at The Humane Society of the United States, where one of her roles included advancing animal welfare in Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Before The HSUS, she served as Executive Director of the Jersey Shore Animal Center. She was the first New Jersey animal welfare leader to achieve the designation of Certified Animal Welfare Administrator, and in 2016, she received the Maddie’s Fund Hero Award for her leadership and dedication toward helping homeless animals.

On our call, she speaks with both the meticulous expertise of an economist (she holds a master’s degree in Economics from Rutgers University) and the rousing spirit of a natural leader. She’s passionate about her work, and her smiles are audible as she describes the WayStation and the vast team of animal lovers who keep it running.

Heather, though deserving of her many accolades, is unconcerned with recognition. She’s the kind of individual who will drift into the background while nudging others — namely, her colleagues and the animals they care for — into the spotlight.

She’s the kind of helper who’ll make you want to be a helper, too.

MUTTS: How does the Sister Shelter WayStation program work?

Heather: WayStation, which we created with the help of PetSmart Charities, is a network of about 60 shelters. There are 31 source shelters (mostly in the southeast) and 30 destination shelters (mostly in the northeast). The source shelters are located in areas of need — where there are overpopulation challenges, for instance — and the destination shelters are located in areas with more ample resources.

The program uses a hub-and-spoke model, with St. Hubert’s at the center, and covers the cost of transporting animals to destination shelters. The logistics allow us all to work together efficiently, transport lots of animals at once, and (most importantly) save lives. And in addition to helping animals find homes, each destination shelter contributes at least $25 per adopted animal back to the source shelter to help address the root causes of animal overpopulation.

In its first year, the WayStation program helped 4,000 dogs and contributed $90,000 to source communities to fund low-cost spay/neuter programs. Right now this specific program is only available for dogs, but we’ll be able to add cats soon. (And sometimes, cats do get to ride with the dogs to our partner shelters. We call that portion of it our Feline Pipeline!)

St. Hubert's Staff with WayStation Transport Vehicle
Staff members pose next to a St. Hubert’s WayStation transport vehicle.

How has your WayStation program helped animals affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria?

All told, there were 1,212 animals who came to us after the hurricanes, and we coordinated their transport to many shelters along the eastern part of the country. Of those animals, 786 of them — including dogs, puppies, cats, kittens, and three pot-bellied pigs — came to us from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. And all 786 came through our building.

Hurricane Maria Animals Arrive in New Jersey
At Morristown Municipal Airport, staff and volunteers load a transport vehicle with animals from Puerto Rico.

Normally, in order for dogs to move across state lines, they need to have something called a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection. But Puerto Rico was just devastated. So the USDA, along with The Humane Society of the United States, reached out to New Jersey’s State Veterinarian and they agreed to waive the certificates temporarily — as long as all the animals went through St. Hubert’s and were quickly examined by a veterinarian.

So we filed health certificates every night. The HSUS reached out to us for partnership, and the New Jersey Veterinarian Medical Association put out a blast to their members. We had over 25 veterinarians come in and volunteer their time, sometimes even bringing tech teams with them. We had two veterinary stations set up in the dog emergency area and one station in the cat area, and some of our partner shelters sent staff to help us with cleaning and caring for the animals. RedRover, which is a wonderful national organization, also sent staff to help. It was a beautiful coming-together in the animal community.

Where did the animals go after they were given veterinary care?

Some moved into our adoption program here, and some were transferred to our partners in places across the northeast, including Vermont and even Toronto.

What about the animals whose families were looking for them?

The animals who came to St. Hubert’s were already in the sheltering system in Puerto Rico (or in Texas, in the case of Hurricane Harvey). Emptying the shelters in these areas freed up space and allowed shelters to keep displaced pets local, so that they could be reunited with their families.

What advice do you have for “everyday” folks who want to help animals during disasters?

First, support local groups providing relief in the disaster area, because they’ll be the ones helping the community for years to come. Second, find out which other groups throughout the country are helping, and support them. Third, if you’re located in a disaster area yourself, consider taking in an animal for someone whose home has been destroyed.

Many communities have been building foster networks. We did that in New Jersey and in parts of New York in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and I know some people were doing that in Texas in response to Hurricane Harvey. That’s an incredible way to help pets and their families. A shelter can only help so much for so long, but maybe you can help an animal for weeks or months, and provide them with the care and love they need while their family gets back on their feet.

Any tips for animal guardians who want to prepare for potential future disasters?

First of all, every family should have a disaster plan in place: Where would you go if you and your pets had to evacuate? You should also keep printed photos of your pets on hand, as well as a little to-go bag of necessities that you could grab quickly if the need arose. That’s a tip for everyone. Remember, disaster can strike anywhere, not just regionally but individually, too. The HSUS has a great disaster-planning resource I’d recommend checking out.

And something everyone can do right now, especially if you live in an area where there is a perennial need (for example, a place that’s commonly impacted by tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, or flooding) is talk to your family and see if you would be able to foster an animal. Maybe you could take a dog, a cat, or a chinchilla. Or if you have a farm, maybe you could take in a horse. There are a lot of animals who need housing after a storm hits.

Are there individual animals you’ve helped who have had a lasting impact on you?

I must l say that I’m just as connected to my desire to advance protection for all animals — including wildlife and farm animals — as I was the day I got involved with this. But yes, actually, there is a nine-year-old German Shepherd sitting with me right now. He has an old shoulder injury, and he just lived through an extreme hurricane and then flew in a plane to New Jersey from Puerto Rico. That’s a lot. He’s an older guy, he’s got an injury … that was it for me. He’s coming home with me every night from now on.

Do you ever experience compassion fatigue? If so, how do you navigate those emotions?

It’s important for me, as a CEO, to make sure I’m always keeping that in mind for my team. It’s one of the reasons why we work so closely with shelters that still euthanize for space. We’re getting right up behind them and supporting them. People in those shelters are saving a lot of lives, more and more every year, and they’re working so hard to champion the protection of all animals.

For myself, I always come back to the expression: “You can never roll back awareness.” I know the need, and I work hard to be aware of issues in all areas of animal protection, and what helps me is knowing that I’m part of the solution. That every day I work toward making things better. Some days I feel like I’m doing that by making sure our vans are running or checking that our accounting reports are done. And I think, “Oh wow, this is how I’m helping animals?” But it is, of course. And on those days it’s nice to be able to walk out of my office and into the kennels. There, I see animals who are in a building with the utilities on, with phone lines that are paid for, and where there’s a team of caring people who are dedicated to helping them.

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