The people of the Virgin Islands are facing disaster after disaster through hurricanes Irma, Jose, and now Maria — and so are the animals.
Vineyard shelter Angels Helping Animals Worldwide is part of a national effort to rescue the 400 homeless cats and dogs found on St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John’s over this hurricane season. Shelter owner Leslie Hurd and volunteers Lynn Shepardson and Ashley Medeiros have sacrificed sleep, sanity, and safety to bring seven of those little hurricane survivors to Martha’s Vineyard.
The manager of the St. Thomas Humane Society called Ms. Hurd and asked for help — she was feeling pressure to put all the animals down — a simple and easy solution she couldn’t bring herself to do. The next day, Ms. Hurd’s full-time volunteer Lynn Shepardson booked a flight and was on her way to San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was the closest open airport to St. Thomas. She arrived on Friday, Sept. 22, and missed the last boat to St. Thomas, which is about 40 miles away. Luckily, arrangements were made, and a private power cigar boat brought Ms. Shepardson on a two-hour trip through eight-foot swells to St. Thomas.
“I’m petrified of boats,” Ms. Shepardson said in an interview with The Times. “But I made it. I took Dramamine and hung on for dear life.”
Ms. Shepardson brought as many supplies and soft-sided cages as she could. When she arrived on St. Thomas, she got in a car and was brought directly to the shelter — cars are only allowed on the road between 10 am and 6 pm, due to the dangerous conditions of the road.
“Cars are stuck in the streets, trees are down, and there’s electric wires everywhere,” Ms. Shepardson said.
That night, Ms. Shepardson got right to work, cleaning, walking, and feeding the 120 dogs and cats at the St. Thomas shelter. All Island hotels and motels were closed, so she slept on a cot in the shelter with other volunteers.
“It wasn’t bad,” Ms. Shepardson said. “For my purposes, it was comfortable enough, and I could be up at sunrise to get right back to work.”
Ms. Shepardson continued work at the shelter on Saturday and Sunday, and on Monday, the cats and dogs were ready for the next leg of their journey.
Sali Gear, a Virginia Beach resident and co-owner of Island Dog Rescue — a nonprofit that saves dogs in the Virgin Islands, where she grew up — chartered a jet to fly down to the Virgin Islands and pick up the 400 cats and dogs stuck in shelters. The jet cost $122,600 total, and funds were raised in a day and a half through community donations and two large anonymous donors, according to a text Ms. Gear sent to The Times. The chartered jet picked up the 120 dogs on St. Thomas, and about 300 others on St. John’s and St. Croix.
“You can imagine how long it took to gather crates, food, water, and blankets,” Ms. Shepardson said. “There were probably at least 50 volunteers there to help transport the dogs.”
As with any crisis, things kept changing, and their 15-car convoy had to switch locations multiple times until they settled on a safe spot where the plane would land.
“It was crazy,” Ms. Shepardson said. “Not to mention the other hurricane coming, so we had to get out.”
The 400 cats and dogs were brought back to Ms. Gear’s farm in Virginia, where Ms. Hurd and volunteer Ashley Medeiros met to help receive and care for the animals. As for Ms. Shepardson, she was flown out of St. Thomas on a military plane that brought her back to San Juan. She flew into Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Monday afternoon, and plans to be back on-Island by Friday.
Seven dogs from St. Thomas were brought to Martha’s Vineyard, and are in quarantine. They’re getting ready to be put up for adoption this Saturday, Sept. 23, at Angels Helping Animals’ annual Doggie Adoption Day at the Black Dog campus in Vineyard Haven from 12 to 4 pm.
For more information, visit angelshelpinganimals.com.