IN THE SHATTERED AFTERMATH OF Hurricane Ian, the Naples Airport, high-and -dry headquarters of Humane Society Naples, was a busy place for four-legged travelers.
Dogs Kimo, Thelma and Louise shipped out to the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation in Virginia.
Goldie the cat, with some other felines, found herself traveling to the Springfield Humane Society in Vermont.
Squirt went to the Windsor-Essex County Humane Society in Canada, Red went to Broome County in New York, and Finn and Dudley went to the Toledo Humane Society in Ohio.
There were hundreds more, the lost or abandoned animals already sheltered before the storm in Collier County or in neighboring counties as far north as Lakeland, in Polk County. All were transported to Naples if they weren’t already there. Lee County’s Gulf Coast Humane Society took a big Ian hit and had to move many of its creatures to Naples, too.
Then those animals were flown to no-kill shelters in other states and Canada to start new lives.
That extraordinary exercise in logistics took place for only one reason: Animal protectors were making room for the seemingly countless creature victims of Ian on the southwest coast who needed shelter space in the region. No storm-surviving animals nowadays are ever transported out of the region. Thus they have a much better chance of reuniting with their families following the hurricane’s devastation.
“We call this whole process ‘Clear the Shelters,’” explained Dave Feenan, a spokesman for Humane Society Naples. By mid-October, HSN had flown out more than 600 animals.
Mr. Feenan found himself, with everybody else at HSN, pitching in to make it happen. It was all hands on deck, he acknowledged — in his case before 4 a.m. on a post-storm morning as he drove back from Lakeland’s shelter with 50 cats. All of them needed help the NHS could provide before 31 went out of state to Cleveland, and 19 found new homes in Collier County.
Meanwhile, cats and dogs surviving the storm and lost would have room in the Lakeland shelter if Collier, Lee and Charlotte County shelters were full, until they could be reunited with owners.
“In many cases our dogs and cats will be reunited,” Mr. Feenan said. “But not always.”
The Ian effort on behalf of domestic animals, with its agile planning and generous transportation funding provided by such nonprofits as Petco Love, PetSmart Charities and Wings of Rescue teamed with the Bissell Pet Foundation, may be unprecedented in Florida or the United States for a single organized response to a natural disaster, executed in a short time.
Broad, organized, immediate action
Joining that effort in a state and national response were veterinarian-led teams from the Humane Society of the United States, the University of Florida and the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, among others. They mobilized and flew or drove into Southwest Florida to establish rescue sites and field clinics in Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties.
“People can walk up and get free food, litter, vet care and collars,” said Dr. Julie Levy, the Fran Marino Distinguished Professor of Shelter Medicine at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville. One of her specialties is disaster response.
“And we have the SART,” she added — “the state Agricultural Response Team organized to come together automatically before disaster strikes.” SART can rescue horses, cows, goats and other animals that may need vet care or a move to higher or drier ground.
“So all these different resources already know what their roles will be. When an emergency response is activated, they mobilize. It’s not an accident that all of these people are in the right place,” she says.
That probably wouldn’t have happened a couple of decades ago.
“There’s been a shift in the last two decades, especially since (Hurricane) Katrina in 2005, where people acknowledge easily that pets are part of their families,” says Sarah Baeckler, CEO of Humane Society Naples.
“It’s changed the landscape for me in how I view this work. We’re a human service agency who keeps families together.”
In addition to the horrific human toll — more than 1,800 were killed during Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area — estimates put the number of dead pets at between 50,000 and 70,000, according to Louisiana’s SPCA.
Almost 89,000 pets went unaccounted for in a city where about 260,000 families had pets. And as many as 104,000 were left behind when people fled for their lives, their records show. That wasn’t because people didn’t love their animals, the experts say; it happened because they weren’t organized or prepared to save them.
Remarkably, according to a poll from the Fritz Foundation, 44% of people in Katrina wouldn’t evacuate because they refused to leave their pets behind. And when those people were rescued by first responders after the storm, they were not allowed to bring their pets.
The consequences of Category 5 Katrina altered animal protections in the United States, a fact borne out by the immediate and well-organized reaction of local, state and national responders to Ian, notes Dr. Levy.
For one thing, Louisiana’s SPCA persuaded the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a “Pet Evacuation Bill” in 2006.
“Now, governments on all levels are required to include companion animals in their evacuation plans,” the LSPCA says in written statements.
“What’s different in this storm response: Every image coming out of rescues in waters or devastated areas shows people with pets in their arms,” explains Dr. Levy.
“That’s so heartwarming. A lot of those people have lost everything. Their pets are one connection they have to the lives they had. We all watched Hurricane Katrina on TV. People were sitting on rooftops and refusing to accept rescue because their pets were not welcome. That led to laws saying there has to be a plan for managing animals in disasters.”
Do the changes mean Americans love their animals more now than once upon a time, or place a higher value on them in their lives?
“I’m not sure there’s a closer connection over time between people and animals; they’ve shared a close connection for millennia,” Dr. Levy says. “But the importance of honoring that is more evident today. The notion that caring for animals or saving animals comes at the expense of saving people is not quite correct. The organizations with expertise in animal lifesaving are pairing up with organizations doing human lifesaving.
“So a great amount of resources are deploying for a more successful disaster response.”
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, likely would have embraced this approach. “I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it,” he once said.
If you rescue the animals or include them in rescue plans, people are more likely to evacuate and to follow the official plan, too — which saves lives.
“In Lee County, the American SPCA has a memorandum of understanding with Lee County government to provide animals disaster response services,” Dr. Levy explains.
“The reason that’s important is this: Disaster response teams can deploy from all over the country with people not affected by the disaster.
“This is a charity coming in, bringing personnel and resources and funding. And also, on the ground, it helps the human rescue response because people want to cooperate with the evacuations when they can take their pets. And in the past, refusal to cooperate could put rescuers in peril.
“So this has a many-layered benefit.”
On the ground
That quickly became apparent on the ground — in this case in central Charlotte County, where Dr. Katherine Polak, a veterinarian for the Humane Society of the United States, based in Chicago, arrived to establish a mobile clinic with services to the neighboring counties. A graduate of University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, she studied with Dr. Levy until she received her degree 10 years ago and has since traveled internationally in animal rescue operations.
Two weeks after Ian, the mobile clinic in Charlotte County was still seeing hundreds of animals per day.
“People coming to our distribution point have lost everything. Some are even coming on bicycles carrying animals, their cats in carriers or their dogs riding on the back, because they’ve lost their motor vehicles and homes,” Dr. Polak says.
“We’re seeing a lot of cats with urinary issues because when they get stressed they get severe urinary disease. People are living in a tent with their cat. One woman asked if we could give her dog something to make it sleepy, and was that OK? She said, ‘It’s because we’re living in my car, now.’ Yesterday, we had over 550 cars come through needing pet food. People come in and their dogs are sick, their cats might be injured, the dog could have lacerations or bleeding, a broken leg — so out of that notion we said let’s set up mobile vet clinics.”
The American Humane Society is working with the Florida Veterinary Association, which means licensed vets and others come in to help.
“We had a vet from Key West today,” Dr. Polak explains. “We have at least four vets and four technicians and support staff for this clinic. Some of these people and their animals — it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a vet.”
Everything has come through the clinic, large and small — they keep food ready for goats, cows and horses — and they see pet rabbits and even squirrels.
“We had a rabbit come in today who hadn’t eaten. Small mammals don’t eat under stress and they can die,” she says. Its owner thought she was having a heart attack because she thought she would lose her rabbit, apparently.
“In disastrous circumstances animals give people a sense of security. That animal also becomes your home. It’s a lifeline for people who suddenly have nothing. Whether in a car, a shelter or a tent, that animal becomes their everything,” Dr. Polak says.
“So in this situation, we want to keep people and pets together as much as we can.”
That was sometimes the most challenging of tasks, which is why organized teams arrived to rescue not just the people whose pets are excluded when first responders arrive to pluck humans from dire straits, but lost animals.
When Ian turned eastward and slashed into the barrier islands — Fort Myers Beach, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva islands were ground zero for the onslaught — they went under 12 to 18 feet of storm surge, in parts. People who stayed in their homes did so for a lot of reasons. Some had nowhere to go. Some didn’t want to abandon their pets. Some figured they were prepared. And some didn’t think the brunt of Ian would hit that hard, or make landfall that far south. And for good reason; until very late, predictions had it coming over the beaches nearer Tampa.
But when it hit, people reacted as they had in previous storms elsewhere.
“A gentleman in Fort Myers Beach who had two cats, an 85-year-old retired Army veteran, would not evacuate because of his cats,” recalls Ms. Baeckler at the NHS.
“He ended up in a crawl space above his home with his two cats, with water flowing around him. I spoke to his daughter. He called the first responders before his phone died. So he stayed with his cats in the crawl space, and pondered jumping into the water. But because of the cats, he didn’t. Thank the universe the water receded, but when first responders were able to get to him in the morning, they couldn’t take the cats.”
Their rules require they take no pets.
The man went back the next day with a team of animal rescuers, but they couldn’t find his cats, “so we connected his daughter with Lee County Animal Services,” Ms. Baeckler said. His daughter didn’t return a phone call seeking a more conclusive end to that story.
Bridgit Budd rode out the storm on Sanibel Island in a house on stilts, joined by her husband, Dan, her mother, and her three dogs, Adrian, Sophie and Goose. The Budds own and operate The Pecking Order on Sanibel, a restaurant specializing in fried chicken.
Every day since the Sept. 28 catastrophe she’s used a bicycle and her formidable organizational skill to recruit and organize help for friends and neighbors, creating daily reports from the island in video Facebook posts. She also looks for lost animals.
Her dogs proved a blessing, not a burden during and after the storm, even with its surging sea and sustained winds of 150 miles per hour, she says.
“They have never given me any smidgen of stress in the hurricane or post-hurricane. During the hurricane all three of them laid with me on the bed. I felt safest when they were with me. Sometimes they would wander out on the porch with my husband to watch what was going on. They provide an extreme sense of comfort for my mom, for me and for my husband.”
What’s it like to be with them?
“It’s like having one toddler and two old people,” Mrs. Budd says. “Adrian is 12, we’ve had him since he was born. Sophie is an adopted dog — her human mom died tragically about a year and half ago. She’s a protector. And Goose just wants to play.”
Everybody should be so fortunate with their animals in a storm. But even when they aren’t, they are, suggests Pete Crumpacker, a Fort Myers Beach resident.
Mr. Crumpacker’s animal story hadn’t concluded with a happy ending by press time, but there was hope, even 16 or 17 days after the storm.
He grew up in Florida and has lived and fished here for most of his 67 years, including the last 45 years on Fort Myers Beach. But he underestimated the storm surge, never having seen one like it before. And in the past, he and his wife, Tina, evacuated for every big storm.
“I said, ‘Let’s just stay this time,’ so I tied my boat up as high as I could on a lift.” But none of his preparations mattered in the end.
“We went from 3 to 6 to 9 to 12 feet of surge, and I heard 17. It happened fast and by then it was too late.”
Pete and Tina had adopted stray dogs and taken in feral cats in the past, he said. At this point in their lives they were, and remain, deeply attached to their cat Tilly, found in an air conditioner by their son and daughter-in-law. And she was attached to them, always greeting each with head butts, paw prods and purring affection.
As the storm came in, “We put her in a carrier. You can’t talk to cats, you can’t tell them, ‘Hey, there’s a storm but you’ll get through this.’ I didn’t think about wind — we were in the eyewall. As water rose we went to the kitchen, then stood on the kitchen counters.
“The water was quickly coming up. I could see that it was higher than the first window and I’d already put Tilly in her case when everything starts floating. By this time the refrigerator went from vertical to horizontal.”
Mr. Crumpacker, a former lifeguard who “gained a little weight” — an accurate euphemism, perhaps, for growing a lot older — got stools, stood up on one atop the kitchen counter, and punched the ceiling drywall repeatedly until he broke through, pulling out enough to create a sizeable hole.
“I made the hole, and I’m hearing Tilly screaming. She’s in the living room floating now in the water. So I go in there, and Tina’s up on the counter, and I get Tilly by the scruff of her neck out of the carrier and toss her up in the attic.”
He and his wife struggled up behind their beloved cat. His hope, he recalls, was that he could lie on his back and kick out the roof if the water kept rising. He’d already seen his neighbor’s car float past the windows below and he knew their lives were at stake.
But finally the water started receding. The Crumpackers just lay in their pitch-black attic all night. At first light, he helped his wife down, and started looking for Tilly.
She’d been there, but she was gone. He called her for a while, he remembers, but she never appeared. So he left both food and water for Tilly in the attic and escaped, with Tina.
About 10 days passed and nobody had seen her. Mr. Crumpacker couldn’t find her at shelters in the area, either, which meant she hadn’t been saved by the animal rescue teams.
But then one day a neighbor who’d gotten back to his property by boat said he’d seen Tilly (the Crumpackers’ boat is a loss).
So hope remains.
As Pete Crumpacker sees it, both cats and dogs are designed for love, itself a kind of rescue from a world of storms, because they’re sentient and nonjudgmental about those who show them kindness and love in turn.
“I say, God bless all sentient souls. We have a life force, a soul, and everybody, every thing matters. A dog can teach you that when you see somebody you love, act like it. Wag your tail. If you have an argument, go back and make friends, start over again.”
In one case near the river in Fort Myers, his sister knows a man who lives alone, he says. “If it weren’t for his dog, the man told her, he didn’t think he’d even still be alive.”
His advice: “You just be with your animal, you’re there just to share space with them. You’re what they’re looking for. And they give back to you. To me, you find what you’re looking for, too.”
In or out of a storm. ¦