- Written by CLAIRE SHEFCHIK
- Published: 09 November 2017
The animal shelter in Johnsons Ghut is still missing about half of its roof, but for an emu it’s just the right temporary home. The 6-foot-tall flightless bird was captured in Belle Vue after running loose for several weeks following Hurricane Irma — and briefly becoming a social-media star.
“Did anybody lose their ostrich?” wrote one Facebook user.
“It need to get out of Belle Vue before they make the biggest BBQ wings in the world!” added another.
For now, the bird, which escaped from a farm in Josiahs Bay, seems content to be off the streets and out of the limelight, calmly preening its feathers at the shelter in Johnsons Ghut.
“He seems friendly; he doesn’t peck me,” said shelter employee Ryhel Kelly, hoisting a bag of hamster and rabbit pellets as the bird curiously stuck its long neck up over the fence of its enclosure to investigate.
The makeshift diet is not ideal, but since emu food wasn’t exactly abundant on Tortola even before Irma, it will have to do. In the meantime, staff are working to find the bird a permanent home.
“Unfortunately, the original owner can’t take it back,” said Vijay Bissoondutt, director of the Humane Society of the BVI. “The farm was almost completely destroyed.”
He added that he’s making efforts to relocate the bird to either Necker or Mosquito Island, which are home to a variety of exotic wildlife.
After Irma, he added, large animals faced the biggest challenges, since they couldn’t be easily transported or sheltered.
“One guy I talked to is still missing five or six of his goats,” he said. “He feared somebody got hungry and slaughtered them for food.”
Preparing for Irma
A few weeks ago, the emu would have been out of luck, since the island’s only shelter — with a missing roof, no cages and a broken fence — wouldn’t have been in a position to accept it. Many of the more than 50 animals there during Irma barely escaped with their lives.
“Thanks to a last-minute Facebook call, 27 of them were fostered out just before the storm hit,” he explained.
Mr. Bissoondutt himself was off island for Irma, and couldn’t make it back until three weeks later.
“There was just no way to get a flight,” he said.
Instead, volunteers from the group Promoting Animal Welfare stepped in, caring for the 19 remaining dogs, fostering out some, and sending others to board at veterinary hospital Canines, Cats & Critters until they could be transported to the United States to be adopted with help from Humane Society International.
Thanks to HSI’s ongoing efforts to send animals off island, it’s quieter than ever at the shelter. But that was the trend even before Irma.
“PAW, thanks to its spaying and neutering work, has done so much to reduce the surplus animal population on Tortola,” Mr. Bissoondutt said.
According to PAW’s Facebook page, the group has already sterilised 329 animals this year. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a need for shelter.
“People started bringing animals in pretty much the day we opened” after Irma, Mr. Bissoondutt said. “Maybe even before.”
Most of them have also since been sent to the US, although “at least two dogs we had were adopted by people on island,” he added.
Although all of the shelter’s cats escaped during Irma, two returned, and are currently wandering around the property.
“The rest are off catching rats,” Mr. Bissoondutt said.
Saturday, five stray dogs were being housed in the shelter, waiting for permanent homes.
“That one had an intestinal problem when they brought him in,” said Mr. Bissoondutt, pointing to a large grey terrier with a bandage on his paw. “And these two —” he pointed to two shepherd mixes, their faces poking over a gate — “were brought by an owner who had to move apartments. She couldn’t take them with her.”
Even with PAW’s efforts, he said, post-Irma instability may cause the stray-animal problem to get worse before it gets better.
“People will be downsizing; moving to new apartments,” he explained. “They won’t be able to take pets along.”
Rebuilding the shelter
However, now that Mr. Bissoondutt has rallied his staff and hired a few extra workers, they will at least have a place to call home temporarily. After he returned to the island, he was able to clear the rubble within a day and put up a temporary covering over the cages to keep the dogs out of the rain. The fence and the roof, though partially repaired, are an ongoing project.
Like many surrounding homes and businesses immediately after Irma, the shelter suffered further harm from looters.
“They took our generator and our power tools,” said Mr. Bissoondutt, shaking his head. “I’ve had to use my own personal generator during the day.’
Obtaining supplies has been especially challenging.
“We lost everything,” he said. “We needed all new bowls, new bedding, new leashes, new refrigerator, new tools.”
The hurricane also delayed longstanding plans for the shelter’s expansion.
“At the time of the flooding [before Irma], we were supposed to start construction on a new shelter in Josiahs Bay,” he explained. “Due to the damage there, that’s on hold indefinitely now.”
Like many recovery operations on the island, Mr. Bissoondutt added, getting manpower and materials going forward will be the real challenge.
“We’re setting up a fundraiser, but we want to make sure it can go straight to us and not to a third party,” he said. “Until then, we have a PayPal button on our website for those who would like to donate.”
Since the shelter phone is not yet operational, he’s asking people to call his mobile at 540-2299 to get in touch.
In the meantime, Mr. Bisoondutt and his landlord have to decide whether they’re going to sink money into repairing a building that may only be temporary, and are keeping afloat by offering boarding and grooming services.
Volunteers continue to pour in, including, last week, students from Cedar International School in Kingstown.
“They came in and walked and bathed the dogs,” he said. “It was great having more helping hands.”