By Peggy Gargis
BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - The deluge of pets displaced by tornadoes and flood waters this spring is straining animal shelters in the Southeast.
Nearly a month after deadly tornadoes ripped through Alabama, the Metro Animal Shelter in Tuscaloosa is home to more than 400 animals, twice as many as before the storms.
Some of the 172 individual kennels at the Birmingham-Jefferson County Animal Control shelter are housing as many as four dogs or cats each.
"We have easily 350 animals here," said Phil Doster, the shelter's adoption and rescue coordinator.
There is no statewide count of how many animals were rescued in Alabama, but figures provided by local shelters offer another glimpse into the widespread devastation caused by storms that killed 238 people in the state on April 27.
Emergency policy changes have allowed shelters to keep animals longer than usual to give owners time to locate them.
"Certainly people have suffered a phenomenal loss in the last few weeks," said Mindy Gilbert, Alabama's director for the Humane Society of the United States. "For many, many of those people, the number one priority was finding their pets."
The Birmingham shelter's normal "stray hold" policy is to either adopt out or euthanize animals in seven days.
Under the revised protocol, "we will not euthanize or adopt out these tornado dogs or cats. Our goal is to reunite these animals with their owners," said Doster, who estimated about 40 percent of the shelter's rescues had been reclaimed.
The shelter worker recently witnessed one such reunion.
He had found a 7-year-old German shepherd named Alex guarding another dog's lifeless body in the tornado rubble in Concord, but couldn't locate the homeowner whose name he got from a receipt.
Last week, Doster learned that the dog's owner, Eddie Gordon, and his wife and 20-month-old son had all been hospitalized with injuries sustained during the twister.
A Facebook page of lost-and-found dogs led Gordon to retrieve Alex from the shelter on Thursday.
"This one is especially emotional for me because I found her and brought her in," said Doster, who has his own dog's paw prints tattooed on his hands.
The animal shelter in flooded Vicksburg, Mississippi, has taken in dozens of dogs, cats, horses, goats and chickens from residents who live in low-lying areas.
"The worst part about the timing is that this is the time of year we get ... irresponsible people bringing their unwanted litters in," said shelter director Georgia Lynn.
She is directing those people to the animal shelter in Jackson to make room for pets displaced by the flood waters.
Shelters in Alabama have received donated animal crates from around the country, and volunteers from as far as New York and Hawaii have flown in to help, Gilbert said on Sunday.
Gilbert, a veteran of rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina, said it was important to keep displaced pets close to their homes to increase the chances of reuniting them with their owners.
"That's always one of the challenges because so many people and so many groups want to help," she said.
"But coming in and rescuing the animals and taking them out of their home zones really kind of negates the ability get them back to their owners."
(Additional reporting by Meryl Dakin; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jerry Norton)