Group works to reunite pets, owners after Tennessee fires

AP News
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Posted: Dec 09, 2016 3:38 AM
Group works to reunite pets, owners after Tennessee fires

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — In the emergency evacuations ahead of fast-spreading wildfires out of the Great Smoky Mountains last week, scores of pets were separated from their owners.

The Humane Society of Sevier County had to evacuate its own building, sending its animals to nearby shelters in eastern Tennessee and North Carolina. The day after the fires, officials got to work setting up a temporary shelter in a barn at the county's fairgrounds.

"We knew when we evacuated our building that there was still animals that were going to be homeless," board member Cheryl Morgan said. "I had a contact here at the fairgrounds, and he said: 'Whatever you need.'"

About 150 dogs and cats have been taken in, some of them badly burned. About 50 more are being kept on behalf of owners forced from their homes. About 40 lost pets have been matched with their owners, and the shelter is posting photos of found animals on social media in hopes they will be able to reunite more of them.

"The outpouring of the support of volunteers, in-kind donations and financial donations has been incredible from across the country," Morgan said.

Veterinary teams are working around the clock as volunteers, and medical supplies, kennels, fences and other supplies have been donated, she said.

The veterinary triage area is near the front entrance and space heaters dot the rest of the barn filled with cages and kennels covered by blankets. Dogs are kept on one side and cats on the other, and volunteers take turns taking the dogs outside for exercise and fresh air.

Morgan said she expects there could be more pets headed for the shelter with the city of Gatlinburg reopening to the public Friday for the first time since the fires that killed 14 people and destroyed or damaged more than 2,400 buildings.

"We hope that people will find any other animals that are running around or injured and able to bring them in," she said.

At the American Red Cross shelter near Gatlinburg, the animal safety organization American Humane has been helping to take care of pets brought along by people forced to leave their homes. Rescue team member Amber Batteiger said that having a place to bring pets helps encourage them to follow evacuation orders.

"A lot of people are telling us when they were ordered to evacuate they said they would not have left their dogs," she said. "It's saving their lives if they are leaving with their animal. Otherwise they might have perished."

The Red Cross is allowing people to keep their pets inside the shelter with them, and American Humane volunteers help care of the animals during the day when owners are working or watching their children. At the high point, there were 54 dogs, 12 cats and one lizard at the shelter. That number has now dropped to about 26 pets as more people have moved back into the city.

It's unclear how long the temporary animal shelter at the fairgrounds will need to remain open, said Morgan. But the Humane Society isn't setting any deadlines, either.

"As long as there are needs for the animals, we'll be here," she said.