Animal shelters empty out, hunker down

Annie Blanks,Savannah Vasquez

FORT WALTON BEACH — As Hurricane Michael neared a Panama City Beach landfall on Wednesday, local animal shelters and refuges prepared to keep their animals safe.

At the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, staff members implored people to take their pets with them if they choose to evacuate.

Dee Thompson, director at PAWS, said the animal shelter fielded several calls Tuesday morning from people wanting to leave their pets at PAWS so they could evacuate out of the area as Hurricane Michael approached.

“At this point, we cannot take in animals for people that are evacuating and want to leave their pets behind,” Thompson said. “We have to take care of the ones that are here and be prepared for the ones after the storm that could be left out, we’d then take care of them.”

Due to the influx of inquiries about leaving pets at the shelter, those surrendering their pets to PAWS before the storm immediately waived the right to retrieve the pet 24 hours later. The pet could be placed up for adoption or euthanized if there’s no space for them.

Thompson said anyone staying at the Davidson Middle School shelter in Crestview or Raider Arena in Niceville can bring their pets to the shelter, sign in and register their pet and PAWS will drive to the shelter and transport them to PAWS during the storm.

Other local animal shelters, refuges and zoos were also making last minute arrangements. 

The Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge on Okaloosa Island said they were evacuating all animals from the refuge and into volunteers' homes for the duration of the storm.

“They are being dispersed to everyone’s homes, or going with them if they are physically leaving the area,” said Veterinarian Technician Michelle Pettis. “We are tying everything down and trying to make it as hurricane proof as we can.”

By 11 a.m. Tuesday all of the refuge’s animals save a few squirrels, raccoons, turtles and birds were evacuated.

“Today all the critters are going out of the refuge and we have a huge amount of diet to go home with our volunteers so they’ll be able to feed everybody,” said Carol “Stormy” Andersen, executive director for the refuge. “We are taking this very seriously, we’ve sent most of our interns home and our volunteers, just the last few of us are here, and we are going to get up off the island in an hour or two.”

Andersen said she got the nickname Stormy due to her 17 years as a meteorologist in the military.

“If there is a really bad storm I won’t stick around,” she said. “But for this one I am staying.”

As for the Emerald Coast Zoo in Crestview, Owner Rick DeRidder said they have taken precautions with their animals and are standing ready to evacuate if the time comes, but for now they are preparing to ride out the storm in place.

“We have an evacuation vehicle ready in case we have to leave with anything and we have volunteers on standby and tranquilizer darts too if we need them,” he said. “We used to live in Cocoa Beach, so we have been bracing for hurricanes for years. This is nothing new to us.”

DeRidder said they have kenneled some animals and placed them in the gift shop, and they themselves will also be riding out the storm with the animals.

“My wife and kids will be sleeping in the gift shop tonight because we still live in the trailer,” he said. “We really feel like we thought of everything because we have been through many storms before. The only thing we are worried about is our diet center because that floods even without a hurricane so we are sandbagging that up. We expect to be open Thursday.”

Over in Freeport, Alaqua Animal Refuge was working midday to foster out all of their animals.

“We put out an APB to all of our volunteers and previous adopters asking them if they can foster for a day or two or three or however long it takes,” Bob Dardenne of the Alaqua Animal Refuge said. “About 90% of the small animals have gone with volunteers and former adopters so far.”

Dardenne said the larger livestock will be going to two different safe places in DeFuniak and Freeport. Most of the animals are being fostered locally but the Troy Animal Rescue Project from Troy, Alabama will be picking up three of Alaqua’s pigs.

The Walton County Animal Shelter, located in DeFuniak Springs, said its animals will be "sheltering in place."

"They will have essential personnel on duty at the shelter to ensure that the animals are safe and taken care of during the storm," said Lindsey Batchelor, a spokeswoman for the shelter. "We will also have animal services personnel at the shelter in the pet-friendly shelter in Freeport."

PAWS staff and volunteers worked overtime throughout the day Monday and Tuesday to prepare the shelter for Hurricane Michael. More than 130 cats who were living in the cat adoption trailer adjacent to the main building were put in crates and transported to the main building since their trailer isn’t able to withstand tropical storm force winds.

PAWS staffers were also calling people who had been approved to adopt animals, but were waiting for the animal to be spayed or neutered for the adoption to be official, to pick the pet up early and bring it back for its final veterinary care after the storm.

Max Bookout and Rhonda Chase came in to pick up Courtney, an energetic pit bull puppy who they thought they’d have to wait several weeks to adopt. But due to Michael, they were allowed to pick her up early.

“We’ll protect her and love her through the storm and after the storm,” Bookout said. “If we have to evacuate, she’s coming with us.”