Woolsey Fire: L.A. Shelters Receiving "Unprecedented Number of Animals"

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The Southern California blaze has led to a sudden influx of creatures to care for and house, the majority of which are horses.

As the Woolsey Fire continues to batter an over 90,000-acre stretch from Ventura County to Malibu, Los Angeles County-area animal shelters and animal-focused non-profits are helping to evacuate and house animals that have suddenly, like their human counterparts, lost their homes to the blaze.

After the fire began on Thursday, Los Angeles County's Animal Care and Control department — which regularly operates seven animal care shelters — opened up six additional, temporary shelters at Pierce College, Hansen Dam, Taft High School, Antelope Valley Fairgrounds, Borchard Community Center and the Thousand Oaks Teen Center to deal with the demand. 

Allison Cardona, deputy director, south county operations, said that officials are dealing with an "unprecedented number of animals." She explained: "At its peak on Friday and Saturday, Pierce College and Hansen Dam were pretty much full. Now it's fluctuating" as people reunite with their pets at an unpredictable pace.

Major challenges during the Woolsey Fire for the county included the loss of one permanent Animal Care and Control facility in Agoura Hills when the town faced mandatory evacuation orders; close to 100 animals had to be evacuated and placed in other shelters around the city. Another wrinkle for the county was that the majority of evacuated animals from the burn area were horses, which require a lot of manpower to shelter. 

Pierce College's equestrian center, which is currently housing 200 horses, and volunteers trained in dealing with horses are helping to offset that responsibility: "To take in this many horses is very unique for us. Luckily we have an amazing equine response team. We could not do this work without them," Cardona says.

Several local nonprofits, meanwhile, are helping to free up space in shelters as animals continue to pour in.

Best Friends Society, an animal rescue and advocacy organization with locations in Mission Hills and Los Angeles, welcomed animals from Los Angeles Animal Services over the weekend and tapped its foster network. The organization had a free cat adoption event all weekend for cats and kittens of any age, given that cats were already overrepresented at shelters before the Woolsey Fire. Best Friends also put out a rare "SOS" to current foster families to ask them to prolong their time with foster animals and consider taking on more.

"I can't recall the last time we've done that, if ever," says Michelle Sathe, a public relations specialist at the organization. "But this has been the most serious fire that I've seen in my five-and-a-half years at Best Friends. I think everyone is really willing to go above and beyond."

As for canines, Wags & Walks, a non-profit dog rescue organization with an adoption center in West Los Angeles, took in resident dogs from local shelters, as did Dogs Without Borders, another non-profit dog rescue organization.

"It’s a city/county wide effort at this point, so we are all simply rescuing and making more space," Dogs Without Borders founder Galit Reuben writes in an email. Her organization took about seven dogs over the weekend from south L.A. shelters, and was rescuing dogs from Baldwin Park, where she heard many affected by the Woolsey Fire have been sheltered, on Tuesday.

Checking on the welfare of animals at burn sites was the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles, which has a memorandum of understanding with L.A. County to deploy in the case of a natural disaster affecting animals. The organization's 10-15 member Disaster Animal Response Team, consisting of animal welfare professionals, first dispatched on Saturday morning to remove animals from harm and perform welfare checks on animals that could not be removed.

"It looks like a lot of the animals have smoke inhalation or are dirty. We have one little kitten with burned ears that we treated with ointment," spcaLA vp Miriam Davenport said. "As far as I know, there hasn't been a severe animal injury." 

Cardona concurs that she hasn't seen many harsh injuries thus far, though the county has seen some animals with burns and smoke inhalation. "Mostly pets have been a little dehydrated and scared more than anything," she says.

With the Woolsey Fire 35 percent contained as of Tuesday morning, animal experts are currently looking ahead to the holiday season and getting worried about fosters returning animals that they take on during the fires to shelters all at once.

"All the rescues who stepped up their efforts during the fires will find themselves in a pickle, including us" if this occurs, Dogs Without Borders' Reuben writes. "We are asking for folks to consider fostering through the holiday or for another wave of holiday fosters to come forward."

Best Friends Society's Sathe says that the best thing the public can do now is adopt so that shelters can make permanent room for their new wards. "If you're in the market to adopt and you live either in the city or the county, please run, don't walk, to your local shelter because they really need the help right now," she says. "Those pets really need to get into homes because there are so many more coming in."