Liz Scott and her husband were cleaning up their yard after Hurricane Ian when they noticed their dog Harley was missing. The German shepherd had dug a hole under their Naples fence and just ... disappeared.
A day went by, and still no Harley.
Then two days.
They were frantic to find their beloved 10-month-old puppy.
They put up fliers. They posted on social media. They searched everywhere with the help of friends and neighbors.
They even made a trail of dirty clothes in their neighborhood, leading to their house, so Harley could sniff her way home.
“It’s like missing a family member,” Scott says. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat.”
Then, Tuesday morning, they heard a dog barking. At first, they thought it was their other dog, Shadow, asking to go outside.
They went to the back door, and there was Harley. Hungry but otherwise unhurt.
“She just started barking,” Scott says. “I just couldn’t believe it. … I almost started crying. We opened the door and I hugged her so much.”
Scott had found her little buddy again.
“We feel like we got our life back, to be honest,” she says. “We got our family back together again.”
Hurricane Ian: A disaster for pets in the Fort Myers, Naples area
Reunion stories like this have been playing out all over Southwest Florida. But some pets and their owners haven’t been so lucky.
Hurricane Ian disrupted everyone’s lives when it barreled through Southwest Florida — pets included.
And people who work with animals here knew it would be bad.
“Animals always suffer in these kinds of things,” says Liz McCauley, executive director of Cape Coral Animal Shelter. “It’s just difficult.”
Shelters have reported taking in lots of stray animals after Ian. And people keep calling them, desperately looking for their lost pets.
Anthony Mas of Port Charlotte is one of those people. He lost his 11-year-old sheepdog, Baby, the night of Hurricane Ian.
His son was walking Baby outside their rental house in Naples, where they’d gone to ride out the storm. Then something scared the dog — Mas doesn’t know what, exactly — and Baby took off running.
They tried finding her, but there was no power anymore and it was too dark to see.
Since then, they’ve heard reports of Baby being spotted in several neighborhoods, but they didn’t have any luck finding her — despite posting her photo on social media and filing a lost pet report with Collier County Domestic Animal Services.
Now, with heavy hearts, they’ve returned home to Port Charlotte, where they have to take care of their hurricane-damaged house.
“It’s killing me,” Mas says about his missing dog — especially because Baby had been abandoned as a puppy by her previous owners. Now he worries that she feels abandoned all over again.
“We went crazy trying to find her,” Mas says. “Everyone’s pretty upset.”
Reuniting dogs and cats with their owners
In times like these, animal shelters and groups go into high gear to do what they can to find lost pets and get them back into the arms of the people who love them.
Southwest Florida is no exception.
Humane Society Naples knew Hurricane Ian was coming, and the staff knew there would be many loose dogs and cats afterward. Some pets just take off and go missing. Others are surrendered by their families because their homes are damaged and they can no longer keep their pets.
So the humane society cleared as much space as they could before Ian made landfall, says CEO Sarah Baeckler. They made room at their own shelters by shipping off as many dogs and cats as they could — about 80 from both the humane society and Collier County Domestic Animal Services — to a shelter in Charleston, South Carolina.
Since then, they’ve been working with Southwest Florida shelters damaged by the hurricane and organizing chartered flights and trucks to get their dogs and cats to safer shelters all over the United States.
So far, they’ve organized three chartered flights and sent out more than 400 animals, Baeckler says.
It’s not been easy serving as a hub for all these Southwest Florida animals and finding homes for them in other U.S. shelters. “The logistics are mind-boggling,” Baeckler says. “It’s insane. But our team stepped up, and we’re doing it.”
Steps like these help free up more shelter space for all the expected strays in the coming days. “This is in anticipation of the next wave," Baeckler says.
By law, all strays in Collier and Lee County must go to those county’s domestic animal services shelters. But after they’re held there for several days without getting adopted or reunited, various no-kill shelters take them in to give them another chance.
Leaders and spokespeople from both counties' animal services offices weren't available for interviews this week, but their Facebook pages show they’ve been busy taking in pets and trying to reunite them with their families.
Now the question remains: How many more stray animals will turn up in the coming days and weeks? And where will they all go?
McCauley of Cape Coral Animal Shelter doesn't quite know the answer to that question.
“We are beyond full,” she says about her shelter. “We have dogs and cats in offices (laughs). We are full. We need another building.”
Cats and dogs go feral quickly
Sue Law is doing what she can to help, though. The Naples woman volunteers for animal-finding group Lost Pet Finders of Collier County, and she’s been trying to help people reunite with their missing pets (including setting traps in neighborhoods where people have seen Mas’s sheepdog, Baby).
She’s been hearing a lot of sad stories over the last week, she says. But she hopes to turn at least a few of those into happy reunions.
Many of these pets escaped after Ian, while people were cleaning up and their doors and windows were open, Law says. Other pets likely disappeared during the hurricane, itself.
“(There are) these people who are up on top of their furniture being flooded,” Law says. “If they have four dogs, how do they get them up there with them?”
Once a pet takes off, it can be really hard to get them back again.
“Dogs that go stray will quickly turn feral-minded ...” she says. “They go into survivor mode and something in their brain just clicks.”
Owners try calling their dogs or approaching then, she said, but they often just scare their pets off.
“Owners don’t realize it, but the dog will be right in front of them and will not have any idea who they are until their nose is right up against their shirt," she says. "They do not know their owner until they’re right on them.”
Cats are even harder.
“Cats will take weeks to find,” Law says. “A dog, you can kind of think about what they’re thinking and where they might be headed. But a cat is like, oh my god, anyone’s guess (laughs).
“They’re just stubborn. They come home when they damn well please.”
Animal shelters are recovering, too
While all this his happening, some Southwest Florida shelters are dealing with crises of their own.
Take, for example, Gulf Coast Humane Society in Fort Myers. Hurricane Ian tore off the roof of their administrative building, damaged a portion of their cat lanai and burst a water pipe, leaving them with no working water.
All of the animals and volunteers survived the destruction, but afterward the humane society had to transport about 240 cats and dogs to other shelters, says spokesman Brian Wierima. They still have about 23 dogs there, though — the most they can manage safely.
The humane society hopes to reopen soon, though, so they can take in animals from Lee County Domestic Animal Services after they’ve been held there for the required five days. The society has been getting a lot of calls about stray animals or animals that need to be boarded, Wierima says.
“We really want to get back into the community and start helping these animals,” he says. “We’re at a standstill.”
Then there are other issues facing shelters. At Cape Coral Animal Shelter, for example, the lack of power meant a lot of the shelter’s medicine went bad.
“Without refrigeration for the longest time, we lost all of our vaccines and medical supplies— which of course are very expensive,” McCauley says. “And now we’re trying to get them, and ordering them is kind of tough. That’s our biggest problem right now.”
Shelters have also been struggling to care for their animals without power or running water. That’s what’s happening at Animal Refuge Center (ARC) in North Fort Myers and its approximately 350 cats and dogs.
But everyone does what they can. Treasurer Betty Hughes has power at her home, so she’s been busy there working the stovetop.
“I’ve been boiling water for five days,” she says. “For the animals, for the volunteers, for anybody.”
All these shelters say the best way animal lovers can help during this crisis is simple: Go to their websites and donate, donate, donate.
Helping out the veterinarians after Ian
While all this is happening, many veterinary offices have been closed, too — either from damage or a lack of electricity.
That’s where a new mobile veterinary clinic comes in at Fort Myers’ Terry Park. Operated by veterinarians from the University of Florida, the clinic features a hospital trailer and a hospital tent — both refrigerated — where animals can be evaluated and treated.
The clinic started running Tuesday with a team of 12 veterinarians, veterinary techs and students, but Dr. Lawrence Garcia of the University of Florida expects that to grow in the next day or two.
The need is there, Garcia says. After a hurricane, animals are often exposed to new dangers that they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. And many of them are dehydrated, too.
“A lot of the cases that we are seeing are animals that are maybe vomiting, may have diarrhea,” Garcia says. “They’ve gotten into something and may have been exposed to flood waters, things like that.
“So we’re evaluating those animals and doing what we can to treat them and get them stabilized til they can get back to their regular veterinarian."
The mobile clinic operates daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They’re also helping distribute pet food on behalf of Lee County Domestic Animal Services, Garcia says.
How long will be there?
“We don’t know,” Garcia says. “As long as the need is there. As long as they need us to be here, we’ll stay.”
What to do if you've lost or found a pet
Both Lee County and Collier County domestic animal services have been working hard to reunite pets with their families, according to their posts on social media.
Lee County Domestic Animal Services has reopened its Lost and Found Department, according to a Facebook post. It’s operating daily from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and can be reached at 533-0705.
In Collier County, people can file a lost pet report online at colliercountyfl.gov/government/public-services/divisions/domestic-animal-services/lost-a-pet.
Collier County Animals Services posted these other tips on Facebook for people with lost pets:
Notify your microchip company and make sure your information is up to date.
Get fliers up and post on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Nextdoor.com, Craigslist, Twitter, etc.
Enlist the help of family and friends to look for your pet.
Keep checking the Collier County Domestic Animal Services website, collierpets.com, for photos of missing pets.
If you’ve found a lost pet, contain it if it’s safe to do so. If you can, take it to any vet office to have it scanned for a microchip or bring the pet to animal services at 7610 Davis Blvd., Naples. You can also call animal control to pick up the animal (although there’s currently an extended waiting time). That number is 252-7387.
If you keep a lost pet in your home, you’re required to fill out a found pet report and provide animal services with photos at colliercountyfl.gov/government/public-services/divisions/domestic-animal-services/found-a-pet.
Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells is an arts and entertainment reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Email him at email@example.com or connect on Facebook (facebook.com/charles.runnells.7), Twitter (@charlesrunnells) and Instagram (@crunnells1).
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Hurricane Ian: Lost pets, packed shelters in Fort Myers, Naples