Inside the Robeson County animal shelter, where nearly 100 dogs, cats and a rooster remain homeless after Hurricane Matthew, the greatest sympathy falls on Blue, a blind Labrador mix with eyes like Little Orphan Annie.
Her family fled quickly as the storm swamped their home outside Lumberton, leaving Blue to fend for herself and two puppies in waist-high water. They survived alone for three days, and when the humans returned, they found all three dogs huddled together on top of a stove.
“The puppies were in front of the mama,” said Jason Allison, shelter manager with Robeson County. “So she wouldn’t fall off.”
Three weeks after the storm, the shelter in St. Pauls has seen 90 animals reunited with their flood-plagued owners, returned well-fed and vaccinated against rabies. But another 90 wait for people who lost houses, furniture, cars and food – some of whom still linger on cots in their own shelters.
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And though the hurricane dogs and cats have pushed his shelter far beyond capacity – only about 115 on a normal day – Allison vows to keep them. Blue’s family, for example, dropped off the dogs until they find a home for themselves.
“When you hear a story like that,” Allison said, “you’ve got to work with people.”
When the Lumber River flooded, volunteers with the ASPCA piloted a jon boat through the streets looking for four-legged victims. The rescuers came from as far away as Oregon and Texas, fighting hurricane currents with a 25-horsepower motor.
In the first days, they responded to calls from evacuees who left their pets behind and offered guesses to where they might be holed up. As the flooding wore on, they moved house to house in search of stragglers. They found cats huddled on rooftops, chickens hiding in the rafters of outbuildings and dozens of dogs stranded on porches surrounded by brown water. In three weeks after the storm, their boats collected more than 300 animals.
“The craziest was a billy goat off the back deck,” said Terry Mills, an ASPCA volunteer from Greensboro. “He did not want to come.”
The shelter urges Robeson residents who lost pets in the storm to check inside their shelter. The reunions, Allison said, have kept the staff invigorated despite being stretched thin – they walk each animal three times a day – and strapped for cash.
“They’re calling out their animal’s name and they hear that bark,” he said. “It’s just a blessed feeling and the best thing.”
But many flood victims know Robeson County has their pets. Allison said the shelter has their phone numbers. Until they find permanent housing, they can’t handle their own dogs. Many shelters open to people during the storm barred cats and dogs, and in nearby Moore County, families chose to sleep with their pets inside cars rather than abandon them to the flooding. In St. Pauls, Allison will hold these pets for as long as he can without putting them up for adoption.
On Thursday, Vicky Clark drove 15 miles from Lumberton to search for Sinbad, her Chihuahua. In the days after Matthew, which claimed all of her furniture, Clark let both of her dogs out in the yard to use the bathroom.
“My big dog came back, but the little one never did,” said Clark, 60. “He’s a real Chihuahua. He’s got a weak eye. He looks like he’s been crying. The end of his tail is bent like it’s been broke before.”
She followed the staff into the shelter, past pit bulls, retrievers and a variety of mutts. Dogs associated with the storm occupy an entire row, and more of the smaller rescues sat in crates the ASPCA donated. Clark scanned the trio of Chihuahuas inside one crate, then passed over to Blue’s puppies before shaking her head and moving on.
“He ain’t in there,” she said.
Robeson animal shelter
A gallery of animals being kept at the Robeson County Animal Shelter after the storm can be viewed at http://nando.com/47t. To reach the shelter by phone, call 910-865-2200. Donations can be sent to the shelter, 255 Landfill Road, St. Pauls, NC, 28384.