After Hurricane Irma devastated St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix, the owner of a Virginia Beach organization that specializes in rescuing dogs from the U.S. Virgin Islands was planning her largest animal rescue mission ever when she suddenly noticed the latest threat — Hurricane Maria — creeping towards the Caribbean and realized that the time to do it is now.
Virginia Beach resident Sali Gear, who grew up in the Virgin Islands, co-owns Island Dog Rescue, a local nonprofit. She had originally planned to fly about 20 animals to the continental U.S. every day over the course of a week, but with the newest hurricane bearing down, she realized that there wasn’t enough time.
Instead of one week, Gear had two days to come up with a way to fly 300 animals from the Caribbean to her farm in Virginia Beach.
With her own money and help from donors, the organization paid for a $112,000 charter flight from Miami to rescue the cats and dogs. They also provided $5,000 for carriers.
The mission went off without a hitch, and the animals landed safely in the U.S. on Tuesday.
“I did it because it had to be done,” she said before the animals arrived. “People have moved heaven and earth to make this happen.”
“This is a sprint, not a marathon,” she said of the ordeal. “I’m exhausted emotionally, physically – but spiritually, I’m not.”
Gear has been back to the Virgin Islands several times since Hurricane Irma took its toll almost two weeks ago. She said that most vegetation on the islands was wiped out, along with many buildings, and animals have to scrounge for food.
Under most circumstances, Gear moves one or two animals at a time. She is on the board of directors for the St. Croix Humane Society and works with animal welfare groups on St. Thomas.
The dogs all arrived in Norfolk around 2 a.m. Tuesday with a bright orange note attached to each crate, reading, “I survived Hurricane Irma. I am still nervous. Please be cautious with me.”
Once they got to Gear’s farm, the dogs were clearly thrilled to be there and slept peacefully in crates all over Gear’s barn and porch.
Chris Sjolund, the manager of Virginia Beach-based animal rescue Hope for Life, said the handful of dogs her organization took seem “highly adoptable” despite the ordeal they’ve been through.
“They all seem happy,” she said, noting, “Island dogs are like that.”
Some rescue groups picked the animals up at the airport to transfer them to safety. Others traveled to Gear’s farm to pick some of them up before heading to new homes in places like Boston, Pittsburgh, and Charlotte, N.C.
Local high school students also mobilized to help Gear’s mission, after Cape Henry Collegiate senior Tinsley Sarrett put out a call on social media for students to take care of the animals once they arrived.
In less than 24 hours, more than 250 people – many from Virginia Beach – volunteered to help walk dogs, some of which had been in crates since Irma hit.
In addition to finding volunteers, Sarrett is organizing a pet food drive at Cape Henry Collegiate. “I have such a big passion for dogs,” she said. “I love them so much, and we as people have to help them.”
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