Saving the animals in Ike's aftermath

Image: Cowboys round up stranded cattle in Texas
Cowboys on the Bolivar Peninsula, which was ravaged by Hurricane Ike, round up some of the thousands of head of cattle that are roaming loose in southeast Texas in the wake of the storm. Earl Nottingham / Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept.
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Self-described “old cowboy” Jerry Finch says his daddy used to joke that he was conceived in the saddle, so it’s not surprising that the silver-haired Texan is now at the forefront of efforts to save horses and cattle from the deadly mess left by Hurricane Ike.

“We keep getting reports of 20 horses here, 15 over there,” Finch told via satellite telephone from Galveston, where Ike roared ashore as a Category 2 storm Saturday, killing at least 17 people across the state and causing billions in damage.

As the founder and president of Habitat for Horses in nearby Hitchcock, rescuing horses from neglect and abuse and placing them out for adoption is Finch’s everyday passion. Now, he has been pulled in to post-Ike efforts at the request of the Galveston County Sheriff’s Department to round up and care for horses caught in the storm, and provide feed for stranded cattle.

Finch’s group is just one of many throughout the area that are focusing on creatures great and small in the aftermath of the storm.

Teams from the Texas Animal Health Commission, state Department of Agriculture and USDA are overseeing the livestock rescue effort. That is a Texas-sized problem in a state that is home to more than a million of the 9 million-plus horses and 14 million of the estimated 95 million head of cattle in the United States.

Although Ike struck well east of the state’s major cattle-raising region, the Texas Farm Bureau said that as of late Tuesday thousands of cattle had drowned and 15,000 were “uncontained” and in danger. There was no estimate on the number of dead and loose horses.

Jerry Finch

The Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is spearheading efforts to rescue cats, dogs and other pets in coordination with the Galveston Island Humane Society, Brazoria County SPCA and the Bay Area SPCA of San Leon, said spokeswoman Stacy Fox.

Habitat for Horses, which also saved animals after Katrina in 2005, has put rescue efforts ahead of salvage and repair operations at its own 27-acre facility, which was “completely decimated,” according to spokeswoman Valerie Kennedy. “All the shelters for the horses there on the site have been flattened,” including a new barn that was funded through years of careful saving by the nonprofit, donor-funded organization. “It’s bad. All their hay and stuff was completely ruined.” Thankfully, she said, none of the 60 horses at the ranch and awaiting adoption was injured when Ike hit.

Other horses in the area were not so lucky, said Finch, describing efforts to round up animals that have been without food and fresh water for days, wounded by wind-blown debris and trapped in the storm’s wreckage. Some did not make it. “We found one in a garage that he had obviously tried to get in for shelter and the water rose and he was unable to get out.”

Happily, others “just magically … swim until they find someplace to stand,” even if it takes them hours. “We got one bull down there still standing on a porch. We can’t get him down yet. It’s always amazing to me the survivability of these animals.”

20 horses saved so far
So far, Finch said, his group has brought about 20 horses to safety. He expects that number will top 100, but that’s just an estimate. He thinks up to 500 horses were on Galveston Island before the storm but does not know how many were evacuated in advance by their owners.

Evacuation was a key message from the Houston SPCA as Ike approached, spokeswoman Fox said. More than 400 animals in shelters around the Galveston area were taken north to Houston before the storm hit.

Still, after the winds died down and the waters receded, “Seventy-seven dogs, cats, parakeets and other animals” were rescued from a devastated facility in Texas City, she said.

With the animal shelters and veterinarians’ offices throughout the area destroyed or badly damaged, the SPCA was able to set up a temporary shelter and veterinary clinic at a former police substation, Fox said. Fifty volunteer animal rescuers from around the country and 100 staffers are now helping locate stranded and injured pets and farm animals, she said. By Tuesday afternoon, more than 130 had been brought to safety.

The tiniest victims
On top of that, more than 550 baby squirrels, knocked from their nests by Ike’s winds, had been brought in. “Kind hearted people picked them up, put them in boxes with soft rags like we told them to and lined up to drop them off,” Fox said. “We have an incredible team of volunteers who are feeding these babies around the clock.” When healthy and weaned, they will be placed back into the wild.

Looking at their needs in the days and weeks ahead, both Habitat for Horses and the Houston SPCA said cash is at the top of the list. The groups do not need additional volunteers at this time. The SPCA has plenty of donated food and fresh water on the way. Habitat could use more hay, Finch said, but “we don’t need to be flooded over” so would-be donors should check first.

Cash contributions for fuel, rebuilding and other needs may be made at the Web sites of Habitat for Horses or the Houston SPCA. “Every dime will go to the animals,” Fox vowed.

To curmudgeons who invariably seem to question animal rescue efforts after storms that have exacted such heavy tolls on human life and infrastructure, Finch said, “There are a lot of people taking care of human needs, electrical, water and sewer. We’re there specifically to take care of the horses. We each have our own little world we try to take care of. Ours is the horses.”