Of course, there’s no way to count the lives saved by the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services teams since its inception in 1916 to help animals on the battlefield during World War II. Since then, Red Star has responded to disasters across the U.S., from Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 to countless California wildfires and the recent floods along the Mississippi River.
Debbie and Steve Gabbard, who live just outside Memphis, TN, recently discovered out how valuable Red Star could be.
“I’ve never come across people like this,” Debbie said in a phone interview May 13, following devastating floods in the Memphis area. “These wonderful people have given up their lives to help us, and to help our babies with four legs. They’re angels. That’s all there is to it.”
There were warnings that the Mississippi and nearby tributaries would flood, likely exceeding record levels. But the Gabbard’s home had weathered the 1997 flood, and flood prevention had been bolstered since then.
“We’re 10 or 15 miles from Mississippi and not very close really to other rivers,” says Debbie. “We really didn’t think it would happen to us.”
However, when it became clear there could be severe flooding, the Gabbards were out the door with their daughter and two young grandchildren, and as many belongings as they could take. Soon, extended family pitched in to help move as many of Debbie and Steve’s belongings into storage as possible in two days.
“When the water came up, it came up fast,” Debbie recalls. “The rivers were coming up anyway, but for hours the biggest downpour I had seen in a long time was going on. My brother, my husband and our pets were the last ones out — and it’s amazing they made it — only by the grace of God.”
But where do you go with three dogs and two cats?
“They’re my babies,” Debbie says, holding back tears. Those babies include a 7-year-old Pit Bull named Diamond; a 2-year-old Pit Bull called Big Daddy; Chico, a 9-year-old Chihuahua, and two cats, 7-year-old Bella and 16-year-old Dusty.
The Gabbards did find a hotel to house the brood, but the cost was high, the couple was charged an extra deposit for pets, and the location was far from where the Gabbard’s children and grandchildren found refuge.
The American Humane Association, and partners ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), PetSMART Charities, International Fund for Animal Welfare and Animal Rescue League of Boston were assigned to a create an animal shelter out of empty warehouses in Memphis. A friend told Debbie about the emergency facility for animals.
“The minute I walked in, I received a hug,” she says. “I began to talk, and, I believe, mostly cry.” Now in tears, she adds. “I explained, I really need someone to care for the animals while we figure out what to do.”
The reply, “That’s why we’re here.”
“Big Daddy got away from my husband and came flying inside the shelter, like he was saying, ‘I belong here.’ They even have available veterinary care.”
After finding a secure place for their animals, the Gabbards were notified that the storage facility containing their belongings was about to be flooded out. Once again, they were forced to move what they could.
“What would we have done with the animals all that time?” Debbie wonders. “I don’t know. Thank goodness they were being cared for.”
Debrah Schnackenberg, senior vice president-emergency services at the American Humane Association, says that while the Gabbards did lose their home, at least they were able to save their pets.
Due to mandatory evacuations, most people in the affected areas around Memphis made it to safety. However, some pets did not. In some cases, people left when flood waters rose faster than expected, and never made it back to retrieve their pets.
Schnackenberg says rescuers went out by boat to save stranded and sometimes starving pets.
“This work involves great skill,” she says. “We’re talking about traumatized animals rescued from flooded homes, or sometimes getting cats from trees over several feet of water. Some animals do come right to rescuers, but others do not.”
Schnackenberg feels that shelters for animals are best when located adjacent to those for people, so families can stay intact.
“It’s better for children, for sure, and even adults when pets are kept very close so families can see them anytime and help to care for them,” she says. “When the sheltering is co-located, a feeling of community is developed, and people meet one another and help each other.”
Following tornadoes and the recent flooding in the Memphis area, PetSMART Charities has provided (to date) 17 truckloads of supplies for victims. Hundreds of animals have been given safe haven, and in some cases rescuers have saved lives.
“I keep saying, they’re angels who kept my babies safe,” says Debbie. “I will never forget.”
Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can’t answer all of them individually, he’ll answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, city and state. Steve’s website is www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated “Steve Dale’s Pet World” and “The Pet Minute.” He’s also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.
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