- Written by CLAIRE SHEFCHIK
- Published: 10 October 2017
It was 10 a.m. last Tuesday at the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, and Natasha Ruscheinski was desperately waiting for a husky.
“The owner has been calling me from the States — she really wants her dog back,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief as the dog’s temporary guardian zoomed up to the arrivals area just in time to put the fluffy blue-eyed dog on the charter flight.
Meanwhile, Cindy Clayton said her final goodbyes to Ziggy, Reggie and Houdini. The three cats had tickets on the 10 a.m. charter flight to Pittsburgh, where an animal rescue society would find them homes.
“They prefer to stay together,” she cautioned the volunteers from Humane Society International who were coordinating the flight.
Many of the dogs leaving — like Roscoe the Rottweiler and Willow, nicknamed “Mangy” for the skin disease she had when she was rescued — were foster animals. Others were going to reunite with owners who evacuated to the United States following Hurricane Irma. But Ms. Clayton, who was already caring for nearly a dozen dogs and cats, was giving up her own pets.
“There are too many feral dogs around since Irma. I just can’t keep them safe anymore,” she said, watching tearfully as Royal Marines loaded them onto luggage carts and drove them out to the tarmac.
Earlier, Kate Westlake and her young daughter bid good-bye to six tiny kittens that mewed as Ms. Ruscheinski loaded them in the back of her vehicle.
“I’ll never get the smell out of my house,” laughed Ms. Westlake. “But I was happy to take care of them.”
At arrivals, a small boy was gazing adoringly at a litter of puppies that clawed at the carrier, licking the fingers of their new buddy — who had already given them names, even though he was unlikely to see them again.
“This one’s Knight Rider and this one’s Bruce Lee,” he explained.
Ms. Ruscheinski, a volunteer with PAW, the spay-and-neuter organisation that has been spearheading the animal rescue effort post-Irma, has already helped transport a total of 61 pets to the US — some even before Irma hit. But now the need is dire, because there is nowhere on Tortola to put stray animals anymore after the shelter in Johnsons Ghut was rendered uninhabitable by the storm.
Ms. Ruscheinski described her panicked odyssey in the days leading up to Irma.
“It’s not a concrete building,” she said. “So we knew we had to work fast.”
Thanks to a desperate call-out via Facebook, volunteers managed to get around 27 animals out of the shelter. After that, along with the rest of the island, all they could do was wait for the storm to pass.
“For the first day after Irma, we couldn’t get out the driveway,” she said. “I was dreading what I was going to see [when we got to the shelter]. As we walked in, there were four dead bunnies and a dead puppy. A dog tied up inside the clinic that had been left there after the staff left, and she had basically strangled herself.”
Overall, though, the results weren’t as bad as they feared. All of the remaining cats, kept in an outdoor enclosure, had escaped, and 19 dogs remained behind in cages, alive but severely dehydrated.
“All in all, they were in good shape,” she said. “The first day we took away the bodies. We used five gallons of fresh drinking water for the dogs. My boyfriend almost broke up with me for using it. I said, ‘I don’t care: I’ll drink Coke for the rest of the year if I have to.’”
Help from abroad
The next day, they were joined by friends who helped them clear fallen trees and clean the cages, made sure all the animals had food and water, gave them walks, and took them to the vet. By that time, two volunteers from HSI had arrived on the island — and not a moment too soon.
“HSI are amazing,” she said. “They gave them rabies vaccinations, dewormed all of them, and got them ready for transport. We sent nine dogs on a flight to the States. The rest all got taken for short term boarding at [local veterinary practice] Canines, Cats and Critters.”
That still left a lot of animals in need of temporary homes, but volunteers have stepped up.
“We have people fostering animals even though they don’t have homes of their own,” she said. “But we still need more.”
Ms. Ruscheinski explained that on evacuation flights, passengers are allowed to take only 15 pounds of luggage, so animals often get left behind.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” she said. “And you have to get them to the vet, the Agriculture Department — it’s a huge process to get a dog or cat out.”
One VI vet, Sarah Weston, who was abroad when Irma hit, has set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise awareness in the UK.
“We are trying to raise funds for long-term medical supplies, food and water, to pay for the evacuations,” she told the Ipswich Star in the United Kingdom.
Her colleague, Laura Palminteri, has been treating injured animals. One of them, a dog named Zayn, was a particularly bad case.
“His owner brought him into the shelter and told us his foot was bleeding after being injured in the storm,” Ms. Ruscheinski said. “Ultimately, he had to have his leg amputated.”
Other volunteers have gone above and beyond, too.
“One woman took in 12 cats. It was just her and them during the hurricane,” Ms. Ruscheinski said.
The HSI volunteers left with the pets on Tuesday, but they plan to return in November and coordinate a more long-term approach to animal welfare.
In the meantime, PAW has started to return to its original purpose, hoping to prevent “hurricane babies.” This year, the organisation achieved its 1,000th spay/neuter. But the challenge is far from over.
“The volume of animals will probably increase as people leave their homes for whatever reason,” she said.
At the airport, Sarah Goodman was with three young boys whom she’s also given shelter from the storm. They were there to see off her foster dog, Roscoe.
“They lost their roof, and he’s been keeping us company since then,” she said, as they waved to the happily panting Rottweiler. “It’s tough to say good-bye.”