By Alexandra Nicolas
When Chris Zar and her family made their way out of the bathroom that sheltered them through the May 2011 tornado, she knew there was no way her five cats could have survived.
Zar searched what was left of her neighborhood near the site for the new Joplin High School and visited an emergency pet shelter. She finally began to accept the fact that her cats — she called them her babies — were either killed or lost in the storm.
Zar said that after moving and settling into a new place, she and her husband began feeling an emptiness.
“Something was missing, and we couldn’t really put a finger on it,” she said.
Realizing it was the absence of pets, she and her husband headed to the Joplin Humane Society, this time during the adopt-a-thon that was held June 25. They adopted two young cats, Trouble and Sugar, because, as she said, “Cats are like potato chips; you can’t have just one.”
Zar said she doesn’t think she has moved on from the loss of her five cats as much as she would like, but she is glad she was able to save her two new cats.
“There wasn’t anything I could do to protect them,” she said of her five previous cats. “I had to protect my family, and I saved two others who went through the same thing. ... We feel like (Trouble and Sugar) are the good thing that came out of the storm.”
More than a year after the tornado, Zar said, her pets are helping her heal.
“They take care of us, I swear, as much as we take care of them,” she said.
“They’re so calming. Sometimes I get to where I don’t feel comfortable in my own skin, then one of them gets on my lap. Either Trouble does some silly antic, or Sugar just quietly sits beside me and purrs. It’s just the most calming, and everything’s OK.”
Pets can play an important role after a disaster, said Lysa Buehler, shelter manager with the Joplin Humane Society.
“Many people have pets that have been much more reliable and long-term than relationships,” she said. “They always understand and seem to be able to silently comfort us. It is critical to emotional recovery that people be able to keep their pets with them.”
“We view helping pets as helping people,” said Tim Rickey, a Joplin native who is the senior director of field investigations and response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “You reunite people with their pets and you recognize just how important their pets are.
“My animals are part of my family. Part of it is it makes your family whole again, and that can have a tremendous impact on your ability to recover.”
But helping the pets that have been helping storm victims and others has been a stretch over the past year, which has been one of the most trying for the Joplin Humane Society.
In the days and weeks after the May 22 tornado, the Joplin Humane Society took in more than 1,300 animals. Eventually, 745 of them were adopted to new homes. Many of the rest were picked up by their owners.
Hundreds of people, including the Zars, took home new pets from the adopt-a-thon in June 2011, when 385 cats and dogs were given new homes. But, many pet owners later surrendered their animals after learning that they couldn’t keep them in their new homes because of restrictions or for other reasons.
Today, a little more than a year later, the shelter is dealing with a “new normal.”
Food, toys and medical supplies for animals, all of which poured in after the tornado along with so many other supplies, have returned to pre-storm levels. Cash donations and volunteers also have fallen back in the past year.
But shelter operators say the need for help is still there.
The society’s Animal Adoption and Resource Center at 140 E. Emperor Lane remains at full capacity, holding anywhere from 250 to 350 animals depending on their size, and more space is needed.
“You could have 500 kennels and they would be filled,” said Connie Andrews, shelter services manager for the Joplin Humane Society. “The only way to fix that problem is to have a spay and neuter initiative.”
Buehler, the shelter manager, said many pet owners are struggling to make ends meet.
“We have a lot more people who need dog food, and that’s one thing that hurts us when donations drop off,” she said. “I love being able to say, ‘Hey, we can spot you a bag until you get paid,’ but we’re trying to feed everyone here.”
Many pet lovers are still in a state of transition, living in temporary housing or with families while waiting on homes to be finished, and that doesn’t always allow for keeping pets.
However, the storm has put the Joplin Humane Society in the “public eye,” according to Buehler, making it possible for it to undertake partnerships with groups such as the ASPCA.
“The ASPCA just came down to our shelter and did a very low cost spay-neuter clinic, and may come back next year,” Buehler said. “They have also encouraged us to apply for a spay-neuter grant as we are getting ready to open our clinic to the public. We are very excited about that.”
Rickey, who returned to Joplin for the ASPCA clinic, said that for animal welfare groups recovering from a disaster, the “real work starts after groups like the ASPCA leave, and they return to daily operations with a new set of burdens to bear.”
After Branson was hit by a tornado in February, Rickey called the Joplin Humane Society to ask for assistance. He said he was pleased by the response, even though he knew supplies were stretched.
“I asked them, ‘Can you share some resources?’ and they said they’d already sent a truck down,” Rickey said. “I’ve seen a lot of communities go through this, and some of them not go through it very well, so I’m really encouraged by what I’ve seen here.”
Want to help?
INFORMATION about the Joplin Humane Society and animals available for adoption can be found at www.joplinhumane.org.