The Missing Animals of Moore: Residents Search for Pets Lost in Tornado

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Joshua Lott / AFP / Getty Images

June Simson embraces her cat Sammi after she found him standing on the rubble of her destroyed home on May 21, 2013 in Moore, Oklahoma.

After seeing his house reduced to a pile of rubble by the deadly tornado that ripped through his hometown, Randy Wheeler didn’t hold out much hope for his blind, 13-year-old dog. But then friends spotted a picture of a small white dog that looked a lot like Wheeler’s Bichon Frise on a local animal shelter’s  Facebook page, which has become a clearinghouse for pets displaced in the disaster.

“It’d be a miracle if this is the same dog,” Wheeler said Wednesday morning as he stood in the lobby of the Animal Resource Center in Oklahoma City. “My son would be so happy.” Wheeler’s nine-year-old son was at Briarwood Elementary when the tornado hit. The school was destroyed, though no one inside was among the 24 people killed by the twister. “Losing our home, his school and his dog would be a lot,” Wheeler said.

When a shelter volunteer brought the dog in, Wheeler was floored: It was Sylvie. “I’m amazed,” he kept repeating, shaking his head. Sylvie, from the moment he touched her began shaking. “I guess she’s going to be traumatized for a while,” Wheeler said.

(MORE: Amazing Animals Survive Oklahoma Tornado)

Sylvie is one of 100 pets that have been brought to the Animal Resource Center since the tornado, said Barbara Lewis, the president of the shelter’s board. Most are cats and dogs but in the last day they have also gotten birds and a rabbit. Lewis expects that number to double in the coming days now that authorities are beginning to allow residents back into the hardest hit areas. The disaster zone had been cordoned off as emergency workers secured power, gas and sewage lines. Lewis’s shelter is one of five in the area accepting lost animals.

Most of the found pets are being brought to the emergency response center set up in the parking lot in front of the Moore Home Depot. There, the Bella Foundation, an Oklahoma City non-profit, triages the animals and determines if they need medical attention. They also look for identifying tags or computer chips – many pets have chips implanted under their skin that indicate their owners.

More than 150 animals had been processed as of Wednesday morning, including some farm animals and pet snakes. Most have gone to the Animal Resource Center. A few were picked up almost immediately. “Once we found some owners’ information, we were amazed when we’d call them they’d come at 4:30 in the morning to Home Depot to pick up their pets,” said Eric McCune, president of the Bella Foundation.

(MORE: Moore Handles Media Circus With a Smile)

As the Animal Resource Center has filled up, the City of Moore opened a ad hoc shelter Tuesday evening at the Cleveland County fairgrounds in neighboring Norman. Less than 18 hours later it had 60 animals and enough supplies to handle 200. “It’s amazing at 8a.m. I made a call and by 6p.m. when I got here this was all here,” said Kristi Scroggins, the Moore veterinarian appointed to run the shelter, waving her arm at the small hill of dog food and supplies brought in by volunteers and citizens looking to help.

The city was also directing all found livestock – horses, cattle, sheep – to be brought to the pop-up shelter. In an EF5 tornado, livestock rarely fairs well, said Mike Roman, the owner of M&M Animal Disposal in Moore. She estimated that more than 250 livestock died in the storm. Thus far, M&M has had requests from various farms to dispose of more than 180 horses, 20 cows and 15 donkeys. Horses in a storm “would normally head to the barn but when the barn is gone and the winds are 200 miles an hour, jumping a fence is tough,” Roman said. “Ninety percent of the horses we disposed of had fence posts through them, were cut in half or had their heads split open.”

Some families whose homes were destroyed brought their animals to the shelters so they would have a place to stay while the families figured out where they would live. “Those animals aren’t up for adoption or fostering and won’t be,” Lewis said. “We’re just taking care of them as long as needed.”

(MORE: Wrenching Decisions as Tornado Flattens School)

Most pet owners aren’t as lucky as Wheeler. For every reunification – Lewis said they had about 10 on Tuesday – there are some 100 disappointed families still combing shelters in the hopes of finding their lost pets. Andy Blochowiak hasn’t been allowed back into his neighborhood yet – he lived just two blocks from the obliterated Plaza Towers Elementary School – but he heard from neighbors that a dog resembling his beagle-Jack Russell terrier mix has been spotted running around the neighborhood, too freaked out to allow humans to approach.

Blochowiak’s other dog died a month ago and he still hasn’t gotten over it. With his home gone, Tommie is nearly all he has left. “I knew she wasn’t here,” the 29-year-old accountant said dejectedly at the Animal Resource Center. “I went through all their photos on Facebook. But I thought, if there’s even just a sliver of a chance, I should go in person and see for myself.”

Sean Vance was sure his eight-year-old lab mix Sooner was at the center. He called Tuesday night and heard that a volunteer had identified her by the stitches behind Sooner’s right ear. But what the volunteer thought were stitches turned out to be scabs and the dog was not Sooner.

“When everything else in the world is topsy turvy, you want your family around you,” Vance, an oil field driver said as he sat dejectedly with his son outside of the shelter. “And the family’s not complete without our pets.”

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