After the destruction of Irma and Maria, Island Dog Rescue evacuated hundreds of dogs and cats out of the Virgin Islands and we are still doing it now. This is our story.
Days before Irma hit, the St. Thomas Humane Society was overwhelmed with owner surrenders. I attempted to relocate thirty dogs to safety, but when that failed, all I could do was standby and make a plan for after the storm.
As a former military pilot and now an airline pilot, I had the advantage of knowing what could and could not work with an air evacuation. I knew a military evacuation would not happen before the human needs were met and that the process required a whole slew of permissions and paperwork.
The first communication I received after Irma was heartbreaking…“It’s really bad here; we need help, please come.”
Three days after Irma, Island Dog Rescue was on the ground in Puerto Rico and headed to St. Thomas with generators, supplies, and most importantly, hope. My organization sent three people and thousands of pounds of supplies and vaccines to the islands every other day.
Fortunately, there was a veterinarian from the New England Wildlife Center vacationing in St Thomas. The vet, along with the shelter’s manager, Rhea, became my trusted advisors on how Island Dog Rescue could help.
On St. Thomas, the runs had been destroyed, and the animals were living in crates. They were getting walks and were fed twice a day. It was less than ideal, but they were safe. It was just not a sustainable situation.
Everyone involved realized that we had to get the animals off-island, and soon, but it was clear the airport was not going to be operating for a while. Time was short, so I reached out to Amerijet, a charter company based in Miami. I had found an organization that would work with me!
Island Dog Rescue made a plan for a total evacuation of the dogs in the St. Thomas shelter and the dogs in the community that were not in livable situations. We decided, since we were using a private charter, we were going to stop in St. Croix and empty that shelter too.
Then Hurricane Maria threatened, and things got complicated!
Although our plan was laid out and we were 48 hours from execution, I got a call at 1 a.m. from my contact, Janice, at Amerijet saying we had to move our plan up 24 hours or we would be weathered out. The pilot in me had been watching Maria’s track and tempo and I was concerned. 24 hours came fast and furious, and both everyone involved pulled together for the animals, even when they should have been prepping their own homes and businesses.
Dogs and cats were caravanned under police escort from the shelter to the plane. Crates for travel were arriving on a charter, so even on the tarmac, animals were being put in crates and palletized onto the plane. Meanwhile, in St. Croix, a group of volunteers anxiously waited their turn with their dogs and cats, knowing they were about to take the brunt of Maria – a storm at least as strong as the one that had destroyed St. Thomas and St. John.
Thousands of miles away, in Virginia Beach, hundreds of volunteers were doing their part to get ready for the over three-hundred animals that would descend on them in a few hours. At our Island Dog Rescue base in Virginia, we have no kennels, only a barn (Calypso Run Farm), and pastures for rescued horses and donkeys. On this night, the stalls would become temporary housing for dogs and cats and the pastures would become dog runs.
Volunteers had brought supplies and cooked white rice to mix with the dog food. A vet and team of vet techs were on hand at the airport and at the farm to attend to any animals that might need attention. Partner rescues from the north would be arriving in the morning to start taking groups of animals to their shelters.
With the farm ready for their arrival, the volunteers went to grab a couple of hours of sleep. Just after midnight, we drove to the Norfolk airport to meet the plane. What we saw when we arrived there was nothing short of amazing. Over 140 cars/trucks/vans were lined up along the side of the road to transport the animals from the plane to the farm.
At the farm, another hundred volunteers waited to help process the dogs and cats, clean cages, and get the animals walked and fed. My heart was full. While we worked through the night, the people of the islands that had been caring for these animals around the clock, got their first real night of sleep. Of course, that was short lived as Maria closed in on the USVI. Both the shelters were empty when the category 5 hurricane hit. That was a lucky thing for St. Croix because when dawn broke, there was nothing left of the shelter. It was destroyed.
The real work is still ongoing and will be for some time. The St. Thomas Humane Society is once again at capacity with a record number of surrenders and strays being brought in. The shelter is still running on generator power. St. Croix is in the process of raising funds to rebuild the shelter that was demolished. Dogs and cats continue to be transported through the Pets with Wings program (St Thomas/St John) and Paws from Paradise (St. Croix).
Many people were separated from their pets in the process of evacuation. Island Dog Rescue funded two small charters that reunited pets with their owners in the States and continues to fund transportation of animals out of the islands. In November, One Love City under Kenny Chesney and Jill Trunnel flew another hundred animals out of the Virgin Islands. Island Dog Rescue and Second Chance Rescue Puerto Rico are funding another charter for the transport of hundred animals from Puerto Rico and Vieques and into the hand of mainland adopters.
While physically devastating, and certainly with authority to take an emotional toll on all living things, there is a greater power that has risen from the destruction and debris. We have witnessed a rebirth of Community and Caring that is not part of a written doctrine but has emerged from the hearts and minds of people working towards a common goal.
Organizations that had worked solo and were unknown to the larger groups have found one another and have come forth with a synergistic strength that is unparalleled in the history of the Caribbean. While I would never wish this upon anyone, it is important that we do not look away from what has happened to us in these moments and that we carry forward the love we have experienced.
Please Help! Donate Now!
One Love City (Kenny Chesney organization for STJ and the VI)
Island Dog Rescue (operated out of Virginia) -supporting all the islands and cats too!
All organizations are 501c3s
Sali Gear is the founder of Island Dog Rescue based in Virginia Beach. She grew up in St. Croix and, for many years, has been actively involved in resolving the USVI dog and cat overpopulation issue in cooperation with the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center and the St. Thomas Humane Society. Island Dog Rescue is not a shelter, but rather a facilitator of transport and adoptions through a foster network.