All creatures great and small | Inspire

Last September, Hurricane Dorian devastated the lives of thousands in the Bahamas — and not just the human residents of the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahamas, but their pets as well. As Erline Andrews learns, in the aftermath of the storm, animal welfare organisations have stepped in to save hundreds of domesticated animals and reunite them with their owners

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • When disasters like last year’s Hurricane Dorian strike, human victims are the priority — but animal welfare activists say pets shouldn’t be forgotten. Photo by Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Shadow, a five-year-old Labrador–pit bull mix, lost some weight in the three weeks he was separated from his human caregivers after the devastating passage of Hurricane Dorian across the Bahamas last September.

Now he appears to have gained it all back, says his “mom,” Barbara Bethel, laughing fondly. Through WhatsApp, she shared a recent photo of the dog lying on his side, her almost two-year-old granddaughter Margaret climbing on top of him. The two showed no sign of the trauma they both experienced as rising water filled their home in Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco, and turned their neighbourhood into a raging river, separating the members of the family. Barbara and her daughter Lisa were pulled in one direction, Margaret and Margaret’s father, Marquis, in another — and Shadow was swept away on his own.

“When I got out the back door,” Bethel recalls of that frightening experience, “there was already four feet of water in the yard. Shadow got on my back. That’s something [he does] when we go swimming. But when I got round the corner, the wind and the waves took him and washed him off my back, and he was gone.”

The humans, soaked and shaken, reunited within hours. But they had given up Shadow for dead until Bethel, who’s currently staying with a friend in Florida, was surfing the Internet one day. “We’re on Facebook and BAARK” — the Bahamas Alliance for Animal Rights and Kindness — “comes up. It shows all the dogs that had been rescued, and here comes a picture of my Shadow!” Over the phone, Bethel sounds like she was in tears. “I said to my daughter, ‘You gotta go get him!’”

Bethel, a fifty-six-year-old divorcée, lost her home and everything in it to a hurricane for the third time. Dorian, the worst natural disaster the Bahamas had ever experienced, also took relatives and friends. The official human casualty count is sixty-five, but hundreds of people are still missing. “I don’t know if you saw the video that was circling round where they found a body and they poked it with a stick,” Bethel says. “Well, that was my very good friend who was sitting next to me when I went to grade school. When I seen that, it just tore me right up.” Again, she sounds like she’s in tears.

After the harrowing experience, the impact of finding her beloved canine companion was huge. “It means we still got hope,” she says. “There’s still hope that something good can come out of something bad.”

Bethel is in Florida until medication she needs is once again available in commerce-crippled Abaco. She expects to move back in early 2020, when she’ll finally see Shadow. Until then, he’s being cared for by Lisa and other relatives still in the island. “That dog is family. That’s like one of my children,” says Bethel. “I will give my last dollar to buy dog food before I spend that on me.”

Reunions like that of Bethel and Shadow are partly why BAARK and other animal welfare organisations, Bahamian and US-based, came together in the aftermath of Dorian to execute search and rescue missions for animals. Their efforts led to some amazing stories.

An emaciated pit bull was found in Marsh Harbour almost a month after the storm passed, stuck under air-conditioning units and other heavy debris. The rescuers called the dog Miracle. “The reason Miracle survived was that there was a water source and he was able to drink,” explains Laura Kimble, president of BAARK, an organisation whose main purpose is to promote spaying and neutering.

The post-Dorian animal rescue was a first for them. Pet owners began asking for help getting their animals off Abaco. “It started with the search and rescue of specific animals,” says Kimble. “Then you get there, and there are other animals in need.”

BAARK, based in New Providence, has no permanent shelter, and set up tents in Nassau to temporarily house the animals rescued from Abaco, which — along with Grand Bahama — was hardest hit by Dorian. The Abaco pet shelter lost its roof, and the islands were in chaos, many buildings flattened by the storm. More than 280 dogs and cats were transported via light aircraft and boat from the Abaco Islands to Nassau, which was not seriously affected by the hurricane. 

BAARK’s Facebook page shows photos of rescued animals, looking despondent, some with wounds, broken bones, or fur loss. Other photos and videos show happy pets and owners reunited. Miracle, who’s since been adopted by a family in Florida, was found using an infrared camera attached to a drone operated by California cinematographer Douglas Thron. He’d previously used drones to find pets after wildfires last year. “I knew with the giant piles of rubble that they’d be exceptionally hard to find,” Thron told NBC News, referring to animals in the hurricane-ravaged Bahamas. 

Kimble says a few people have questioned putting such time and effort towards animals when humans were in need. Her response to that: “You have to take care of your entire community when a disaster strikes, and that includes domesticated animals.”

Some owners who lost homes were forced to leave their pets behind because shelters didn’t allow animals. “We would love to see a shift in hurricane relief across the Caribbean, for hurricane shelters to be pet friendly,” says Kimble. “There are so many people with pets, and those pets are family members.”

The Dorian rescue team has so far been able to reunite more than seventy animals and their owners. Others have been fostered or kept at the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau, because their owners are still in no position to take them. Animals who have not been claimed have been adopted by locals or flown to shelters abroad to be adopted there. About six hundred cats and dogs from the Bahamas have been flown to shelters in Florida, New Jersey, Colorado, Maine, and other parts of the US and Canada. 

More than two hundred of the pet evacuees came from the Humane Society of Grand Bahama, which is recovering from a horror no one expected after the shelter had withstood previous hurricanes. About ninety dogs and seven cats — some of them left there by owners who thought it would be safer than their homes — died when waves of water filled the building before the caretakers had time to rescue all the animals. 

No human lives were lost, but about half the staff of nineteen later found their homes were seriously damaged. One woman lost her house entirely. Despite the staff’s trauma and the loss of medical equipment, electricity, potable water, and the shelter’s two vehicles, it didn’t stop operating. In the days following the hurricane, executive director Tip Burrows and her team arranged for the surviving animals to be reunited with their owners or flown to the US, and for donations of pet food and medicine to be sent to Grand Bahama by air or boat. The donations were shared with pet owners around the island. 

The Grand Bahama team also rescued animals, particularly from the East End of the island, which was worst hit. Part of the reason animals were sent abroad was to make room for those being rescued and those brought in by owners no longer able to take care of them. “The need for our services is greater than ever,” says Burrows.

Asked when she thinks the shelter and Grand Bahama will be back to normal, she replies, “This is not going to be a quick recovery, by any means. Grand Bahama in particular was pretty depressed economically before the storm. There are a number of businesses that will not be reopening. So that’s another blow. Both for jobs and our overall economy. We’re looking at years of recovery. Not weeks and months.”

But later, she strikes a more upbeat tone. “Island people are pretty resilient,” she says. “I think the majority of people are determined to get through this and come back better than ever.”