'Take your pets with you'

Many animals that weathered Charley are now in the hands of caring volunteers.

BY HEATHER MOYER | PUNTA GORDA, Fla. | August 24, 2004

Many animals that weathered Hurricane Charley are now in the hands of caring volunteers.

It's evident in the parking lot of a severely damaged Punta Gorda athletic complex, where vans and trucks from local animal control departments and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) are set up. This is the region's animal rescue area where residents can bring in their pets for care and for temporary or permanent housing. People can also drop off any stray animals they find.

"We have a mobile vet clinic here that's providing assessments of all animals brought in to us," said Melissa Forberg, an HSUS disaster consultant. Forberg added that they also have teams of vets and animal control officers going out into the community to provide care for farm animals.

Hurricane Charley's animal survivors are suffering from several issues.

"Water's been a major problem, we're seeing a lot of cases of heat stress," said Forberg. "Since most people around here rely on well water and there's no electricity to operate the wells, it's a problem. Many of these pets are used to living in an air-conditioned house at all times, too, so this heat is too much for them."

With all the fiberglass insulation blowing around, eye injuries are another major problem. Many pets also have cuts on their paws from walking around through debris-ridden neighborhoods.

Inside the emergency veterinarian's trailer, several volunteer doctors are calming a newly arrived stray puppy. The trailer is a fully operational vet clinic. A wall of cages lines one side of the trailer. Forberg said they keep the animals in the trailer until a large enough load is gathered for transference to a shelter north of Port Charlotte. Monday morning, several cats and dogs wait their turn.

Forberg said the entire operation relies not only on the local animal control officers, but also the 20 to 30 generous volunteers that have been helping. The volunteers include veterinarians, vet technicians, and other folks who just want to be there to assist the operation.

Debi Tietboehl is one volunteer working that morning. She said they've seen many happy reunions of pets with owners, but they've also seen many sad moments where owners have to leave their pets at the shelter until their homes are repaired. Some pets have been left to the shelter permanently, and others are part of a program that will foster them out until the owners are able to pick them up again. "It's a tough decision either way," she said.

Those strays lucky enough to have been micro-chipped are scanned and logged into the system so their owners know where they are. Volunteer vet Dr. Chris Gretzinger ran the scanner over the newly arrived puppy, but no microchip turned up. Gretzinger and a vet technician from her clinic showed up Monday morning to put in their volunteer hours. "We just wanted to help out any way we could," she said.

Tietboehl said any injured animals that are brought in are stabilized and then sent on to local vet offices for emergency care. This is so no business is taken away from the local economy.

Many 'lost pet' forms have been filled out at this temporary shelter, as families try to locate their critters. Forberg said the most important way to make sure pets are okay in disasters is to have a plan. Families should have a list of hotels and shelters that allow pets.

"If you have to evacuate, take your pets with you - because if you can't live through it, then neither can your pets."

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