By Helia Zarkhosh, RedRover Communications Coordinator

Three months ago, I moved cross-country to join the RedRover team as their new Communications Coordinator. Within my first month on staff, disaster struck. Wildfires began raging throughout Western United States. As a life-long East Coaster, this was completely unfamiliar territory for me; something I’d only seen on the news. Ash was falling from the sky. Smoke filled the air. My throat and lungs burned when I took my dog for a walk. But — as my new colleagues reassured me every time I asked — I was safe, far away enough from the fires and any immediate danger.

As we typically do when there is a natural disaster, RedRover began compiling and circulating resource lists for evacuees with pets: evacuation centers, pet-friendly shelters, emergency boarding facilities, where to obtain emergency pet supplies, etc. Creating and updating these lists along with my team became a part of my routine, scouring articles and countless websites for news and information.

Our resource lists are invaluable – a wealth of critical information compiled over hours and hours by numerous team members. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say these lists are often a lifeline for people in crisis.

Over the course of several weeks, I read through stories of evacuees who lost everything in these fires; of pets left behind because there was nowhere to take them to safety; of people who waited too long to escape. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of helplessness. I wanted to do more; I needed to do more. But all I could do was keep researching…and wait. In any disaster/rescue/crisis situation, RedRover must be called upon to deploy by the lead agency. For many logistical and safety reasons, we can’t just show up. So I focused on creating and distributing our resource lists while I waited for RedRover to receive the call to help. And then the call came. Since we’re not deploying volunteers to disaster sites due to COVID-19, the call went out to staff to help an emergency animal shelter established in Butte County by North Valley Animal Disaster Group (NVADG) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). I could not have replied to the email faster, and within 24 hours, a plan was in place: I was heading to Oroville, CA, to help with the care of more than 100 animals as a RedRover Responders staff member.

Although I’d completed the RedRover Responders volunteer training and knew the basics of what a deployment operation might look like, Beth Gammie, RedRover’s Director of Field Operations, took extra care to prepare me for my first time on the ground. She cautioned me to make self-care a priority given the emotional toll of what I might see. In that conversation with Beth, I told her that this kind of work feeds my soul. As a longtime animal rescue volunteer, I’ve seen animals in all sorts of conditions — good, bad, and ugly. Of course, my heart has broken at times, but it has also been full after helping animals in need. So I clung to the notion that no matter what I might see, I’d be contributing to a meaningful effort to care for animals in crisis – the foundation that guides everything RedRover stands for.

Though I repeated these words of readiness and encouragement to myself — and expressed the sentiment to my colleagues who checked in on me ahead of my very first deployment — I wasn’t prepared for what I experienced when I actually began my shifts in Oroville. 

I was absolutely taken aback by how much was being done for these animals. The emergency shelter was set up in a fairly large facility that fortunately could house many beloved pets. On my first day, there were 130 animals on-site, some of whom had been there for several weeks already. Dogs, cats, bunnies, and birds were receiving care and affection from an incredible group of staff and volunteers from numerous organizations, including the aforementioned NVADG and IFAW, but also Butte County Animal Control and County employees, volunteers from the Humane Society of Silicon Valley (HSSV), and folks all the way from the Humane Society of San Diego (HSSD). In fact, some of our own staff had flown in from as far as New York (shout-out to the awe-inspiring Devon Krusko and Katie Campbell for being straight-up powerhouses). All these people answered the call for help and were putting in 12+ hour days in the hot sun and smoky air.

Our daily tasks included:

  •         walking all the dogs in the morning, afternoon, and evening
  •         preparing meals, including special diets
  •         cleaning dog crates, litter boxes, birdcages, and bunny enclosures
  •         moving supplies, donations, and equipment
  •         taking out bags and bags of trash
  •         sorting through laundry
  •         disinfecting bowls, crates, and kongs
  •         logging information on each and every animal

To type out this list now doesn’t do justice to the aching muscles, inevitable cuts, scrapes, and bruises, plus the heavy lifting everyone endured. What struck me, though, was the dedication of every single person on-site. These people left their own families and pets behind, and put their jobs and lives on hold. They approached hard work with enthusiasm, passion, and a fierce determination that moved me. Through the exhaustion, everyone managed to find a little more energy, a little more motivation to keep going for the animals, for one another. Thinking back to my interactions with the people and animals, I can’t help but tear up.

I was committed to RedRover’s mission when I applied for my job with the organization. And I fell in love with the organization when I met the people behind it. But it’s one thing to read about and support a cause on paper…it’s another entirely to experience the execution of the mission and actually be a part of it.

To these animals, perhaps even to the other volunteers I met, our encounter will have been a fleeting experience. But my experience with all of the animals and people I met on this deployment touched my soul. I will forever remember their faces, their spirits, and how full they made my heart feel. To this organization and the many others who have stepped in, to the volunteers I worked alongside and those I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting, to the pet parents who prioritized the safety of their animals by bringing them to the shelters…thank you. 

Check out the Facebook photo album. 

If, like me, you find yourself feeling helpless in crisis situations like this one, I urge you to channel that feeling into acts of service. However you can, in whatever way you’re comfortable, find a means to contribute. The RedRover Responders team is always accepting new volunteers, and for the first time ever, our volunteer training program is now available entirely online. If the idea of deploying (when we can again deploy volunteers safely) doesn’t appeal to you, check with your local animal shelters for other opportunities to get involved. Maybe it’s an emergency supply drive, maybe it’s a fundraiser, or maybe it’s as simple and critical as sharing information on social media for evacuees to know where they can get their pets to safety. There is something each of us can do to help — and what we can accomplish together is nothing short of inspiring.