Almost every neighborhood has one—a young girl or boy who’s constantly bringing home all sorts of stray animals. While the responsibilities of school, sports and jobs lead many kids to put aside this selfless kindness, others make it their life’s calling. Betsy Saul is one of the latter. As a child, Saul rescued kittens, puppies, birds, squirrels and even an ailing snake. Today, as founder of Petfinder.com, Saul’s rescue efforts have gained international recognition and praise.
As Petfinder.com celebrated its 10th anniversary, Saul recalled that her original intent had been to harness the power of the Internet to reduce euthanasia rates; her initial goal was to save a few animals each month. Fast-forward 10 years, and it’s clear that Saul has achieved more than she ever imagined. As of June 2006, Petfinder.com had helped facilitate over 10,000,000 adoptions.
Rising to the Occasion
In September 2005, as the nation watched, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast, resulting in widespread flooding, destruction and disease. Tragically, many were forced to leave their beloved pets behind to fend for themselves; others were unable to locate their pets, and feared for their well-being.
In the midst of this natural disaster, Petfinder.com became an integral part of one of the largest animal rescue efforts ever undertaken in this country when the Humane Society of the United States, Maddie’s Fund and the ASPCA approached it for assistance. Already in the process of building a universal database, Petfinder.com—with input from these agencies—began one of the most successful collaborations in animal disaster-response history.
In just a few days, with Petfinder.com’s programmers working 20-hour shifts, the Animal Emergency Response Network (AERN) web-based system went live. Information from more than eight databases—including those of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and United Animal Nations (UAN)—was made available to people who were frantically searching for missing animals, or those who wanted to help rescue animals left homeless by the storms. Thanks to the AERN database, 3,200 companion animals and their owners were reunited.
Cause for Pride
As the one-year anniversary of the Gulf Coast disaster approached, Saul reflected on Petfinder.com’s involvement with the previous year’s rescue effort. As she recalled, “Approximately 17,000 pets out of perhaps as many as 150,000 animals that lived in the affected region went through the rescue system. Given the magnitude of the disaster, the length of time it took for folks to get to a point when they could begin searching for their pet, and the huge number of pets that had no identification, the fact that we achieved 3,200 reunions is nothing short of miraculous.”
Saul was also proud of Petfinder.com’s response to Hurricane Rita. “Before [Rita] hit," she said, "we trained a 24-hour call center to use AERN. We issued ongoing radio news releases as people were evacuating, urging listeners to call a toll-free number to find temporary lodging [foster homes] for their pets along their evacuation route.
“The response was awesome. This system allowed people to take care of their own pets rather than give them up to a shelter. Imagine driving up a highway in Texas, not knowing if you would find a hotel that accepted pets, and being able to find a caring family who would help out. It was very cool and I’m really proud of that.”
When I asked her for some final thoughts on the rescue efforts after both hurricanes, her response was clear: “With the help of shelter staff, the rescuers who responded and Stealth Volunteers [a grassroots group who worked tirelessly on reuniting animals]… what a dream! I couldn’t have conceived of a more inspirational response. I’m so proud of everyone. I think tragedies like Katrina might shake the foundation of one’s faith in some things ... but my faith in people after that response is huge.”