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After dark, teams comb tornado ruins for lost pets

/ Source: The Associated Press

Late at night in a neighborhood left dark and splintered by a killer tornado, Lloyd Brown snakes his way through downed utility lines and over broken plywood in search of the final survivors lost amid the rubble — dogs and cats.

More than two weeks after twisters shattered the South, teams from the Humane Society of the United States are still rounding up stray animals and pets in the most heavily damaged areas. The search for human survivors in the rubble ended previously. More than 350 dogs, cats, birds, snakes, lizards and even a tarantula already have been found in the shattered neighborhoods around Tuscaloosa, and the local animal shelter is so full it had to erect tents for additional space.

Still, though, there's life hidden in the wreckage. Once the sun sets and the rumble of heavy machinery dies down, lost pets and strays begin peeking out of their hiding spots in search of food. Humane workers set boxlike traps every night to catch them.

Humane Society worker Connie Brooks of Key West, Fla., just returned to the United States after two weeks of rounding up animals in the tsunami zone in Japan. Now, she is answering calls about all sorts of animals lost in the Southern tornado outbreak.

"We had a bird reunited yesterday. We had a call about an iguana, and a tarantula was reunited with its owner. They found it in a tree," she said.

During the hunt for strays Thursday night, a black cat stands atop a broken tree and meows as a pickup driven by Brown passes by; other team members shine flashlights out the window to catch the glint of little eyes in the dark. Spooked, the cat darts away when volunteers and Humane Society staffers get out of the vehicle and try to coax it toward them.

The hazard lights on the big truck flash, and Brown turns a corner, pulling to the side of the road. He gets out, walks up the concrete stairs of what used to be a house and places a wire cage on the slab. He baits the trap with smelly cat food from a can and drapes it all with a piece of carpet from the wreckage to help disguise the metal mesh.

The trapping work starts about 8 p.m. and lasts until the wee hours. Friday at 7 a.m., team members went back to clear the traps and take the night's catch back to a temporary shelter located in the parking lot of Alberta Baptist Church, which was shattered by the twister that killed more than 40 people in Tuscaloosa on April 27.

The shelter is filled with animals either brought in by trapping teams or surrendered by their owners: Two boxers given up because their owners couldn't care for them beg for attention in cages just below five puppies found in the rubble. Beside them in a cage is Sugar Bear, a friendly cat whose owner lives in the remains of her shattered apartment just across the street.

But mostly workers are looking for dogs and cats. On a pitch-black stretch of Juanita Drive, Brown's crew drives up to the badly damaged home of John Warbington, who's sitting on his pickup truck with a pistol shoved in the waistline of his pants. He's keeping watch in case looters show up again.

"There's been two arrests here already," said Warbington, 61.

Warbington and his wife survived the twister, but both their great Dane named George and dachshund, Capt. Jack, were gone after the winds died down. A neighbor found George, but Warbington hasn't seen his "weenie dog" since.

"Jack, Jack," he calls into the darkness.

Brown, who is from Miami, got a call a few days ago after someone heard the cries of a dog coming from the debris beside Warbington's house. He removed all the rubble he could but found nothing.

Now, it's time to look for more animals. He shakes hands with Warbington and offers his best wishes.

"There's nothing I'd like more than to be able to return your dog to you," Brown says.