Tens of thousands of people lost power, heat and water when Winter Storm Uri ravaged the southern United States in mid-February.

Dozens more died in the weather conditions, which caused mass chaos in states like Texas and Louisiana that are unfamiliar with harsh winters.

But the people of those states weren’t the only storm victims. The cold temperatures and abundance of ice wreaked havoc on the areas’ pets as well. And in a large state like Texas, where stray animals are already a massive issue, the crisis grew exponentially worse.

Two local sisters are doing their best to help, though, as are Minnesota shelters.

Twins Tama Lundquist and Tena Lundquist Faust, originally from Deerwood, are co-presidents of Houston PetSet, a nonprofit aiming to end animal homelessness and provide stray animals with better lives.

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Tena moved to Houston in 1997 after meeting her husband, and Tama followed in 2004 after living abroad for a time. Both sisters were involved with animal welfare work for a while when they joined the PetSet Board of Directors in 2007. When asked to take on a co-president position on the board in 2012, they thought that was something they’d do for maybe a year. Fast forward to 2021, and sisters are still in their post, doing their best to help the stray animal crisis in Houston.

As lifelong animal lovers coming from Minnesota, the women said getting used to the animal situation in Houston was difficult.

“I’d carry dog food and leashes in my car, and I was constantly rescuing dogs, waiting for the city shelters, ACOs — animal control officers — to show up, and they never did,” Tena said during a Zoom interview. “And I’d call my husband and say, ‘I’ve been out here two hours. Nobody’s here.’ And he’s like, ‘Tena, this is Houston.’”

Tama Lundquist and Tena Lundquist Faust, twin sisters originally from Deerwood, hold two puppies that will be transported from Houston to shelters elsewhere. Submitted Photo
Tama Lundquist and Tena Lundquist Faust, twin sisters originally from Deerwood, hold two puppies that will be transported from Houston to shelters elsewhere. Submitted Photo

The fourth-largest city in the U.S., Houston has a population of about 2.3 million people and likely hundreds of thousands of stray animals at any given time.

“With the climate being what it is and having these rural pockets and a lack of high standards for animals, it’s the perfect breeding ground — pardon the pun — for excess numbers of homeless animals,” Tama said.

A year-round breeding season means it’s nearly impossible to get ahead of the issue.

There isn’t much legislation around protecting animals either, with law enforcement officers not able to seize animals from dangerous or neglectful situations.

Houston PetSet and its various community partners spend around $67 million a year on rescuing animals. By comparison, the city and county spend about $19 million combined, Tama said.

“And even with all those resources, we’re still seeing increases in the number of strays throughout the city,” she added.

To make matters even worse, Houston is no stranger to severe weather, with violent storms, flooding and hurricanes common occurrences. Stray animals drowning in these situations is not unheard of.

This year’s winter storm, though, was a whole different beast. Houstonians weren’t prepared for below-zero temperatures and ice accumulation.

“When you have your power grid completely fail across the state and people are without water and electricity for three to five days, it creates chaos,” Tena said. “And so it was not only hard on people, it was hard on animals. We watched as animals died, froze to death on the ends of chains, and there was really nothing that could be done in many cases.”

Thousands of calls about animals in danger went unanswered, simply for a lack of resources.

“It was horrible,” Tena said.

But one Brainerd area organization stepped up to help as best it could.

Donna Sutton is executive director of the Babinski Foundation animal shelter in Pequot Lakes and happens to be a childhood friend of Tena and Tama. The women were students together at Lake Region Christian School in Baxter and reconnected a few years ago.

A partnership was born, and Houston PetSet began transporting displaced animals up to the Babinski Foundation last year. When this year’s winter storm struck Texas, Sutton and her shelter reached out again to see how they could help. Within 48 hours, Babinski Foundation staffers were down in Texas, loading up 26 dogs from a shelter with no running water to bring back with them to Minnesota.

Executive Director Donna Sutton holds Suki the cat Sunday, April 19, at The Babinski Foundation Animal Shelter in Pequot Lakes. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Executive Director Donna Sutton holds Suki the cat Sunday, April 19, at The Babinski Foundation Animal Shelter in Pequot Lakes. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“And typical of Minnesotans thinking ahead, not only did they show up to help, but they showed up with a whole pallet of water, which was so necessary and so needed,” Tena said.

Costco donated the pallets of water for the cause.

For Sutton, reaching out to help was a simple decision.

“They’re so overwhelmed with everything that’s happened down there, people having to give up their pets, having to leave their homes,” she said during a phone interview.

With so many animals still in need after the initial transport, the Babinski Foundation decided to make weekly trips to Houston throughout March. Sutton expects a bus load of about 160 cats and dogs to make its way back to Pequot Lakes Thursday, March 11.

“It’s the whole mission of why we are who we are,” Sutton said, telling the story of Donald Babinski, for whom the shelter is named and who left the necessary funds to set it up and run it when he died.

“We want to honor his wish and desire for the shelter,” she said, noting Minnesota doesn’t have the overpopulation issue Houston does.

“We want to take care of our area — and we do — but we have the ability to do so much more,” Sutton said.

Tena and Tama are grateful for their partnership with the Babinski Foundation and other Minnesota groups as well, like the Animal Humane Society - Golden Valley, Angel of Hope Animal Rescue in Dayton and Ruff Start Rescue in Princeton.

They transport throughout the year to other states as well, including New York, Colorado and Washington, where there isn’t a surplus of animals. It’s a win-win because if the animals stayed in Houston, they’d likely be euthanized.

“To see them get on the bus and to trust us as human beings to do anything for them, it’s just amazing to see those spirits. We’ve let them down in so many ways, so every time we put them on the bus … we know that they’re going to get off on the other side, in another state, in another climate with totally new people,” Tama said. “… It is such a rewarding experience to see them on their journey.”

But that journey may not have been possible without the women’s father, Wayne Lundquist, and his dedication to their dream. Before his unexpected death in 2016, he made arrangements with Ruff Start Rescue for transports from Houston PetSet. He even lined up groomers so the dogs could be bathed and groomed upon arrival and look their best for potential adopters. Unfortunately he died before he could see his work pay off, but he was the inspiration, so the following year, Tena and Tama organized a transport in his honor, naming it the Crown Royal Express, paying homage to his affinity for the occasional nip of whiskey.

Tena Lundquist Faust, co-president of Houston PetSet, plays with a dog getting ready to be transported from Houston to the Babinski Foundation in Pequot Lakes in February after Winter Storm Uri struck Texas, intensifying the homeless animal crisis. Submitted Photo
Tena Lundquist Faust, co-president of Houston PetSet, plays with a dog getting ready to be transported from Houston to the Babinski Foundation in Pequot Lakes in February after Winter Storm Uri struck Texas, intensifying the homeless animal crisis. Submitted Photo

“We really feel like this program has been blessed, and he’s been our angel kind of guiding it because we’ve done so much more than we ever expected to do,” Tena said.

Last year, Houston PetSet transported nearly 3,000 animals to other shelters, which the twins said was nothing short of miraculous.

Aside from rehoming animals, Houston PetSet also offers free spay and neuter clinics, provides mobile veterinary service units and works on education and legislation.

Working with the Texas Humane Legislation Network, Tama and Tena’s goal for this year is Texas House Bill 873, which would give law enforcement officers more rights to pick up restrained animals and would clarify shelter, food and water requirements for animals.

“We know that we’ve got to educate in order to change the way people treat their animals. And when we can’t educate, we legislate,” Tama said.

Getting the word out about the dire situations in states like Texas is key, as is ending unnecessary breeding to try to gain control of the situation.

“We could do all the marketing in Houston,” Tama said, “but really it’s getting the word out nationwide.”

For more information on Houston PetSet, visit houstonpetset.org. For a list of adoptable animals at the Babinski Foundation, visit babinskifoundation.org/adoptable-animals.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.