When Ken Goldman watches news of Japan's recovery efforts or Minnesota's spring flooding, his mind flashes not only to the people affected, but to their animal companions.

The owner of a dog accessory business in Minneapolis, he recently sent a shipment of sturdy water-repellent dog boots to Japan to protect rescue dogs' feet from glass and debris.

Goldman's philanthropy fits into the expanding universe of disaster relief for animals. It includes animal search and rescue operations, volunteer veterinary services, the sheltering of lost animals and donations of food and supplies.

The field has exploded since Hurricane Katrina, when news cameras captured New Orleans residents refusing to leave their rooftops without their pet companions.

"When we see a disaster in Haiti or Japan, you might not be able to relate directly to what's happening ... but you can relate to a family dog,'' said Goldman. "The family dog is the family dog, whether it be in New Orleans, Haiti or Tokyo. It's the point where people connect.''

That emotional response is a big reason why so many people are so concerned, he said.

It's the law

While humane societies and nonprofit animal rights groups have long rushed to the scene of natural disasters to rescue and shelter pets, the work has become dramatically more coordinated in recent years. That's true both internationally and in Minnesota.

Under a law passed by Congress after Hurricane Katrina, every state must have an animal disaster rescue plan in place. Without such a plan, the state would be ineligible to receive federal emergency disaster relief, said Charlie O'Brien, chairman of the Minnesota Animal Disaster Coalition, a group of about 25 government agencies, humane societies and other nonprofits.

Not only does Minnesota have such a plan, but counties now are in the process of devising them, as well, he said.

"There's a significant industry out there specifically focused on animal disaster relief, especially pet companions,'' said Keith Streff, a coalition member and senior investigator at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley.

"Right now we're on standby in case of Minnesota flooding.''

In a sign of the growing importance of the mission, the coalition has about $300,000 worth of cages, collars, food and other supplies stored in a warehouse in Minneapolis, ready for any emergency, said Streff. That's enough to immediately care for about 500 animals.

The coalition also is seeking laptops, bar code readers and software to provide high-tech links between pets and their owners, said O'Brien.

"Let's say a place is flooded,'' explained O'Brien. "The homeowner leaves and brings his animal to the [Red Cross] shelter. We take a picture of the person and get their information. Take a picture of the animal and put a bar code on its collar. We take care of the animal. The person stays in the shelter.''

And later the two can be reunited.

Streff and O'Brien were among the Minnesota volunteers who donated their skills to Fargo rescue efforts during the dramatic 2009 flooding. At a fairground pavilion that was converted to an emergency animal shelter, they helped care for "186 dogs and cats, 86 horses, and a goat named Chili Meat,'' said O'Brien.

While government grants paid for some rescue supplies, a great deal is donated by individuals and businesses, said Streff.

"Individuals make a significant show of philanthropy when they see a need, donating cages, blankets, food,'' he said. "And there's donations from industry, such as Pet Food Warehouses, Home Depot, Purina. ... ''

There's something about seeing an animal, stranded on a roof, surrounded by water, that pulls on heartstrings, said Streff, adding, "It creates an outpouring of support.''

Volunteers in Japan

Meanwhile, one of the first animal disaster relief groups to land in Japan last month was the nonprofit World Vets, based in Fargo. Its founder, veterinarian Cathy King, lives in Fargo. The group has about 25 Minnesota volunteers who donate their time for veterinary work in general, and disaster relief specifically.

The small nonprofit started in 2006 has found itself today a leader in disaster relief for animals.

"We had a first-responder team en route to Japan within 72 hours,'' said King. "We've shipped more than $100,000 in veterinary supplies, antibiotics, cages, IV fluids, cat food, dog food and thousands of leashes and collars.''

Four weeks after the earthquake, the team's mission has shifted from decontaminating animals from the destruction zones to finding the owners of the thousands of pets living in shelters.

"We need to know, 'Do they still have owners?''' said King. "Are the owners still alive? They have a huge animal situation going on right now.''

World Vets is getting funding for its work from individual donations, as well as foundations specifically focused on animal welfare, such as the Fondation Brigitte Bardot of Paris.

Meanwhile back in Minnesota, Goldman has learned that his dog boots arrived safely in Japan and have been sent to rescue dogs. He's hoping that the extra-sturdy boots will help the dogs' confidence and sense of balance "since they'll be on their feet a long time.''

Goldman also has donated collars and supplies from his small business, called Stunt Puppy, to the Minnesota Search and Rescue Dog Association.

He believes that the animal disaster relief network will only continue to thrive.

"We're always going to have natural disasters,'' he said. "And pet ownership isn't going anywhere but up.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511