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After the Storms

Post-Tornado Animal Recovery Continues



Photo by Carli Wentworth

Oklahomans know from experience that the fallout from a serious tornado can extend well beyond the days and weeks immediately following the storm. Building a new home can take months, and re-establishing all of the various threads of normal day-to-day life can take years. For some, the mourning of serious losses may never end.

However, even life-long Okies may be unaware of some of the aspects of reconstruction after a particularly deadly tornado or series of tornadoes, like those that tore through our state in May of 2013. Everyone sees the coverage on local (and sometimes national) news of devastated homes, roads and highways shut down and the community effort to house and care for those who are directly affected, which keeps the most pressing needs in the forefront of everyone’s minds. But significant storms with a high occurrence of property damage (the May 2013 tornadoes were rated 4 and 5 on the Fujita scale) usually bring a host of peripheral problems that might go unnoticed by the population at large – problems that continue long after the rubble has been cleared away.

One ongoing issue in post-storm efforts is the recovery and/or re-homing of pets lost during the disasters.

Most of us have seen the heartwarming video of Moore resident Barbara Garcia’s dog being found in debris as she was being interviewed by CBS News, or read at least one story on Facebook about a pet and their human being reunited, but many are not aware that efforts are still going on to find lost animals, or locate new homes for them, months later.

In July 2013, a couple of months after high winds tore through south Oklahoma City, area resident Sherrie Heskitt saw a stray dog in the parking lot of Pioneer Pies near Pennsylvania Avenue and I-240.

A long-time animal rescue volunteer and occasional foster mom to four-legged friends in need, Heskitt could tell right away that this dog wasn’t a typical long-term stray.

Photo by Carli Wentworth“I always had the feeling that she had been lost in the high winds that hit us,” Heskitt says. “I felt like someone was looking for her.”

After a lengthy campaign of offering food and gaining the dog’s trust, Heskitt was finally able to get the animal into the car and bring her home in mid-October.

“I could tell she was a house dog, housebroken, very sweet, and after a trip to Unleashed Grooming on I-240 and Walker – where they cut off the matted parts of her coat for free, after hearing how I found her – she settled down and fit right in with my dogs.”

Heskitt, who still maintains contact with various rescue groups in the metro area that she’s worked with over the years, posted the dog’s photo on the Facebook page of the Oklahoma Rescue Network,
and within 24 hours, she received a call.

“Her name is Lady,” the excited woman on the other end of the line said, and sure enough, when Heskitt called out the name, the dog came immediately.

Lady’s owner did indeed suffer fence damage due to the high winds, just as Heskitt had suspected, and the dog escaped through an undetected open spot. Efforts to find her had been unfruitful, until Heskitt’s Facebook post was brought to the family’s attention.

“This precious girl is now home where she belongs,” Heskitt says. “Miracles do happen … I got to be part of one!”

As encouraging as stories like those of Barbara Garcia and Lady and her family, the truth is that many families who lost pets continue to wonder what happened.

Photo courtesy Central Oklahoma Humane Society

The Central Oklahoma Humane Society was on site quickly after the Moore tornado, and made every effort to ensure that affected animals were cared for.

“The Humane team responded within hours on the night of May 20,” says Amy Shrodes, director of outreach for Central Oklahoma Humane Society. “We operated two temporary shelters that supported the City of Oklahoma City’s disaster relief efforts for displaced pets. We received more than 150 dogs and cats in just a few nights, and we were able to reunite 88 of those pets with their families. The dogs and cats that were not reunited at our facilities were adopted out to loving homes.”

The Society is also an active member of the Long-Term Area Recovery Committee for Oklahoma County, and is working with the Oklahoma Disaster Recovery Project to provide pet-related needs for the dogs and cats of disaster victims in central Oklahoma, pet deposits, microchips, spay/neuter services, and pet food. These services and supplies will be available to those in need through July 2014.

Life in Tornado Alley being what it is, the likelihood that May 2013 will be repeated in some form in the future is unfortunately a strong one; in addition to safe locations to ride out storms, pet owners should be aware of the special considerations that animal ownership brings to tornado preparation.

The Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Association suggests that pet owners keep photos of their animals for identification purposes, along with medical records in case of separation (if your pet is found, you’ll probably be required to provide proof of ownership). Keep carriers for each of your pets, and make sure they’re used to them before an emergency, as mid-storm isn’t the best time to introduce your frightened cat to a crate. Also be mindful of conditions after the disaster; downed power lines and debris can be dangerous to unsupervised pets, and fence damage can allow escapes. Pet behavior can also change after a traumatic incident, making a formerly stable cat or dog more likely to bolt or act unpredictably. For more information about pets and preparing for potential disasters, visit okvma.org.

Our state’s propensity for dangerous storm systems may make others question the sanity of anyone willing to risk living here, and it’s true that the many facets of recovery after a tornado – from rebuilding businesses and homes to rehabilitating people and pets – can seem overwhelming, when all put together.

But individuals like Sherrie Heskitt and organizations like the Central Oklahoma Humane Society (as well as numerous small rescue groups throughout the state), combined with good old-fashioned Oklahoma neighborliness, ensure that whatever the weather, Oklahomans will pull together and help each other work to put the pieces back together after the storms.

Photo by Carli Wentworth

What About Wildlife?

Rondi Large, executive director at WildCare, a nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation center located east of Noble, credits awareness and increased concern about wildlife with the astonishing number of animals brought to her facility after last year’s storms.

“We’ve been doing this for years,” Large relates. “We took in pigeons after the bombing at the Murrah building, and we rehabilitated displaced animals after the May 3 (1999) tornado, but we received a record number this year. We always receive a lot of animals after storms, but I think that with all of the rescue effort that was going on, there were a lot more people discovering wild animals, and I think that people are a lot more aware now of what to do with them, when they find them; they know that there are places around where they can be taken.”

Photo by Lindell DillonThe roster of animals rescued after the tornado and brought to WildCare totals 800, of which 180 were cottontail rabbits. The number also included coyote pups brought from Harrah, and several species of birds, including what might be the storm’s smallest survivor: a baby hummingbird, no larger than a peanut.

WildCare’s proximity to Moore, one of the areas hardest hit, accounts for the center’s pivotal role in caring for native animals whose habitats were disrupted, but also cost them when hail damaged buildings and killed five animals housed on the property.

“When we personally got hit, it sort of took the wind out of our sails,” Large says. “We’ve always been the rescuers, but we needed help at that point, too.”

That help came in the form of a grant from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The organization was happy to help, especially since one of their members got to experience on a personal level just how brutal Oklahoma weather can be.

“It just so happened that IFA had a representative here when that hail storm went through. She was here the entire time with us in our basement. Afterwards, they made a donation to replace an enclosure, and even sent workers to help build it.”

Monetary support year-round is always a welcome way to help wildlife rehab efforts, but Large has this advice for those who stumble across native fauna that seems to be in need of assistance:

Photo by Carli Wentworth

“If it’s not a disaster situation, post- storm or something like that, and the animal is a baby and doesn’t seem to be hurt, just wait and watch, if that’s practical and safe. Many times wild babies are left alone for long periods, and the mother will come back and everything will be fine if they’re left alone.”

Tornado season often coincides with many animals’ “baby season,” however, and sometimes storms will kill parents, or separate them from their young. Large still advises a cautious approach, and encourages kind-hearted Oklahomans to call a local rehabilitation facility – one licensed to care for whatever type of animal is in question – before acting.

“Call first, and ask for help,” Large says. “We want animals safe, but we want people to be safe, too.”

Too Big for the Backseat
Large Animal Safety and Rescue

Horses are almost as synonymous with Oklahoma as tornadoes, but serious storms can be particularly deadly for animals typically housed outside: they are too large to move quickly, and post-disaster rescue and treatment for them can be tricky.

Photo by Carli Wentworth

Dr. Clayton McCook is an equine vet, and was one of the first on the scene at Celestial Acres Training Center in Moore after the devastating tornado destroyed some of the facility’s barns and killed several horses.
“I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to get those images out of my head,” says McCook. “Working at a racetrack, you see plenty of bad injuries, legs broken. But not like that.”

McCook and other volunteers helped to track down and treat horses displaced by the tornado that tore through the area, and that experience helped to reinforce the importance of having more structured agencies for livestock and large breed rescue.

Photo by Carli Wentworth“There are a lot of resources out there, and most groups do their job very well,” McCook says. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture does a terrific job, but they can’t implement triage right after something like this, for large animals and livestock.”

“The USDA told me that all disaster response starts locally and moves outward. The people who know the community well are the ones best equipped to respond.”

It’s this concept that led Dr. McCook to become a founding member of the Oklahoma Large Animal First Responders, a group dedicated to organizing search, rescue and eventually rehabilitation and re-homing of large animals displaced by tornadoes or other natural disasters.

“We’re working with groups like the Oklahoma State University veterinary school and the Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps to integrate options for providing the best possible response to situations like this.”

Some suggestions for large animal/livestock owners, in the event of a disaster:

Be Prepared. Having an evacuation plan, complete with multiple relocation options, safe containment areas if you’re not evacuating and an emergency kit with any medications and instructions for individual animals is your first line of defense. There should be a back-up person familiar with the plan in case you’re not home during a disaster. Multiple forms of identification like photographs, brands, descriptions, microchips and halter tags are helpful in case animals are lost.

Be Aware. Familiarize yourself with surrounding farms, stables and organizations (like Oklahoma Large Animal First Responders) that are coordinating efforts to find animals and owners. If you’ve lost an animal (or found someone else’s), quick contact will speed the reunion process. The primary dangers to large animals during and after a disaster are injuries from collapsed barns, kidney failure due to dehydration and electrocution from downed power lines; keeping those in mind and making arrangements accordingly can help prevent some tragedies. 

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