An 18-wheeler outfitted with 55 stainless steel cages, air conditioning and running water — reportedly the only one of its kind in the country — is now ready for its mission of rescuing and evacuating pets caught in disasters.

Officials with the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry and other organizations that together funded the mobile pet shelter presented it Thursday at a news conference at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Ascension Parish.

On hand were animal rescue workers from Louisiana and from across the U.S. who have been training at the center this week on rescuing animals during a catastrophe.

The impetus behind the mobile pet center was what first responders saw time and again after Katrina.

“Many people refused to leave their homes because they would not leave their pets,” state Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain said.

It cost $80,000 for the truck, which came from the state Agriculture Department’s existing fleet, to be retrofitted with permanent cages of varying sizes, a ramp, a ventilation and cooling system, and running water in a stainless steel sink, said John Walther, assistant commissioner and director of emergency programs with the Agriculture Department.

The department funded $40,000 of the cost for the mobile pet shelter, and the remaining $40,000 came from three organizations — the Louisiana State Animal Response Team, the Dr. Walter J. Ernst Jr. Veterinary Memorial Foundation and the Louisiana Veterinary Medical Association.

The 18-wheeler has multiple power sources, including a generator, battery and the ability to plug into available sources of electricity.

“It can be deployed in a moment’s notice to anywhere in America,” Walther said.

One of the benefits of the mobile pet shelter is that it can be used for transportation of pets as well as be parked next to the shelters where the animals’ owners are staying, said Pat Santos, former chief of the state’s Office of Homeland Security, who later worked with the Stephenson Disaster Management Institute at LSU, where agencies and organizations began to discuss the concept of the mobile pet shelter about two years ago.

“We know how strong that (human-animal) bond is. We were adamant about working on this project,” said Dr. Renée Poirrier, director of the Louisiana State Animal Response Team, which assists with evacuating and sheltering animals.

“We can co-locate people and their pets” with the new mobile shelter, she said. “We know we will save people’s lives and pets’ lives.”

After Hurricane Katrina, a federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act was passed in 2006 that requires local and state disaster plans to include provisions for companion animals and service animals in the event of a major disaster.

Louisiana put its own law into effect, the Pet Evacuation Bill, Act 615, on the books that same year.

Strain said the Agriculture Department’s use of its 18-wheeler, refrigerated food transport trucks for pet rescues in 2012’s Hurricane Isaac pointed out the need for something more. Residents of LaPlace in St. John the Baptist Parish were flooded out of their homes and evacuated.

Rescuers were transporting and lifting pets into trucks with no ramps in plastic, assembled carriers.

“Somebody said, ‘There’s got to be a better way,’ ” Strain said.

The result is the mobile pet shelter, he said.

“I hope this trailer never has to roll,” Strain said.

But if it does, he said, “It’s going to roll and help people and their pets anywhere it’s needed.”

“It has ramps, lights, water and climate control. It doesn’t get any better,” Strain said.

He said he would like the state to eventually have two to five of the mobile pet shelters.

The Department of Agriculture and Forestry will continue to use 18-wheeler food transport trucks in its fleet with assembled pet cages and staff to help with the evacuation of pets.

Joel Lopez, a staff member of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals chapter in New York City, has been training at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center this week and got a chance to see the mobile pet shelter.

“Katrina was obviously extremely tragic,” Lopez said. “The best thing that can come from tragic events is that we learn from them.”

“This truck is amazing. It’s truly going to save lives. I hope that other states follow suit,” he said.