Homeless Pets Find Refuge After Storms

Lost and alone, household pets wait in shelters to be claimed or adopted

MOORE, Okla. – There had been thunder before — and dogs never like thunder — but this was different. This was worse. His owners ran out of the house, running for their lives, leaving him behind. As he tried to hide from the terrible noise of the storm, the house was swept away in a furious wind. The dog was scared and injured, but worst of all left alone.

In the aftermath of the May tornados in and around Moore, Okla., hundreds of pets were left homeless and abandoned. After already reuniting 84 animals with their owners, the Animal Resource Center in Oklahoma City still housed 98 unclaimed cats and dogs as of June 6 – two weeks after the storms. At the same time, the Cleveland County Fairgrounds held 78 unclaimed pets. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State University’s Veterinary Health Center was providing free care to animals affected by the storms.

Animal Resource Center, Oklahoma City

Tiffany Panchecho, supervisor of dogs at the ARC, was self-employed before the storms, but now spends her full day volunteering at the shelter.

“After dropping off some stuff, I felt like I needed to do more, so the next morning I showed up at 4 a.m.,” she said. “I just kept coming back. I guess because I was so consistent, I was put in charge. The funny thing is, I was actually a cat person — and before this, I didn’t know a thing about dogs.”

Panchecho arrives at the shelter at 7 a.m. to help walk the dogs every day. “It takes three hours to walk them all,” she said.

The ARC faces some challenges with the number of pets it is sheltering, said Barbara Lewis, who runs the shelter. “This is not a shelter; it’s a resource center.” Its primary purpose is to provide information for pet owners. For now, she said, the biggest challenge lies in caring for the animals and controlling their stress.

“The animals have different handlers each day, and are in crates the whole day — which is something they aren’t used to,” Lewis said. “They get bored.”

The center segregated all the cats, along with two dogs recovering from injuries, to give them a quiet space away from the incessant barking. They also set aside quarantine rooms for injured or sick animals.

Occasionally, some animals need emergency medical treatment. Mandy Trotter, a volunteer at the center, spoke of one cat that was so lethargic it was sent to an emergency veterinary clinic.

Panchecho described a Labrador retriever that was having a hard time taking her daily walks. The handlers mentioned it, so the center had a veterinarian take a look.

“Her organs were packed in a way only seen in car wrecks. That means that poor dog was just dragged along by the tornado,” said Panchecho.

That dog, along with many other severely injured animals, was sent to OSU for treatment.

Oklahoma State University’s Veterinary Health Center

Private donations to OSU’s Animal Relief Fund paid all the veterinary bills, said Derinda Blakeney, public relations and marketing coordinator for the health center.

Some animals were brought from shelters, while others were brought in by their owners.

OSU treated about 50 animals but had reunited only five with owners by June 5, Blakeney said.

OSU veterinarian Danielle Dugat mentioned two such reunions in particular.

“Igor was a severely dehydrated cat that had just been pulled from the rubble,” she said. “He arrived here at OSU just as his family arrived looking for him. They were just yelling, ‘We found him! We found him!’ as we were taking him back for treatment.

“We also had a orange tabby cat pulled from the rubble,” said Dugat. “We named him Puss in Boots because he looked like the cat from the movie. When we found his owner, it turned out his original name was Puss.”

Unfortunately, Puss could not go home immediately because he had to have his ear amputated and required anesthesia every two days to control his pain.

Dugat said she saw “a lot of fractures, some severe — and wounds both minor and severe.”

“We’ve had some critical injuries, including severe lung injury,” she said. “Two dogs had chests filled with fluid and air, and they actually had to have surgery and chest tubes.”

Once the animals were treated, they were sent back to the ARC, the Moore Animal Shelter or the Cleveland County Fairgrounds.

Cleveland County Fairgrounds

Carrie Daley has spent 19 years as Paul’s Valley, Okla., animal control officer. After the tornados, she set up a shelter space at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds in Norman, Okla. As the on-site shelter manager, she was charge of caring for 54 dogs and 33 cats. She coordinated the efforts of an all-volunteer staff that included local animal lovers as well as representatives from RedRover, a national organization for emergency animal relief.

“RedRover Responders from all over the United States, not just Oklahoma, are here helping,” said Daley. “We have a volunteer medical crew and dog walkers.”

On one recent day, the fairgrounds shelter reunited five animals with their owners and unloaded two truckloads of donated pet supplies from Georgia.

The ARC and fairgrounds shelters stopped accepting new animals by early June because they would not likely be tornado victims.

All three locations displayed cross-listed photos of the still-unclaimed pets, so searching owners could see if their pet was being held at another shelter. Some information also was posted online.

Why Some Animals Remain Unclaimed

Many tornado victims have been too busy with more pressing needs than finding the family dog, shelter officials said. “I think that, with all they are going through, most just haven’t gotten around to searching for their pets,” said Daley.

Lewis said some owners might not have looked yet, some might have transportation issues, and some, “especially the elderly,” might be unfamiliar with the Internet.

“Most owners, I think, have given up hope. They’re not sure their pet even survived,” she said.

Like Dugat, the shelter workers have reunion stories of their own. One of the most surprising involved a hamster, said Panchecho. “Someone found his cage, and the hamster was still alive in it.” The owner went to the ARC to look for his hamster and was reunited.

“A Hispanic man came in and he had been unable to speak or read English,” Panchecho said. “He needed a translator, and his neighbor had seen his dog online. He came in to claim an old, blind schnauzer.”

One still-unclaimed mother cat that came in with two kittens had since “fostered four more, even nursing them,” she said.

Owners often bring photos to prove they really own their pet. The shelter volunteers do not want to give an animal to the wrong person.

“It’s also based on the dog’s reaction,” said Panchecho. “They know their owners.”

Dugat said that when pets see their owners again, they often “have tails wagging and butts shaking.”

“I just want to get the word out,” she said, so owners do not “have one more thing to endure. At least they can get their family complete.”

When the volunteers do reunite owners with their pets, Lewis said, “everyone is in tears.”

Boarding Claimed Animals

The shelters are crowded, and not all the animals in them are unclaimed. Some owners who lost their homes asked the shelters to keep their animals for them for now.

“The owners come and visit them, some daily,” said Panchecho.

In addition to free boarding, the ARC provided food, cages, and other pet necessities to tornado victims. It received more donations than it could use at the shelter, Panchecho said, so it offered the overflow to victims.

“I’ve already pulled out enough food,” she said. “The rest of this is for owners to take.”

Adoptions

All those involved insisted that no animal would be euthanized. After 30 days, all unclaimed pets would be placed for adoption.

Panchecho allowed her volunteers to write their name and cellphone number on each animal’s identification sheet, so they would have first adoption rights for unclaimed pets.

“This makes me so happy to see,” she said, noticing that another volunteer had done just that for one of the cats.

The three shelters scheduled a combined adoption event for June 23. After that, any remaining pets would be sent to rescue services. Before adoption, “all animals will be micro-chipped and spayed or neutered,” said Panchecho.

“This one’s mine,” she said, holding a lost Chihuahua. “I fell in love with him.”

If someone came to claim him, she said she would be both “sad and happy.”

“It’ll be bittersweet,” said Panchecho. “These dogs consume my life, but I’m OK with it — because if it were my dog, I’d want someone to love on my dog.”

To see this article as it was originally published for the Red Dirt Journal, click here

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