Twelve hours later the exhausted falcon landed back in Haiti, almost where she'd begun the day's journey.
She was among the luckier victims of Mitch--and the winds were the least of the storm, which raged off Central America for four days, causing unprecedented torrential rain, mud slides, and flooding. Altogether, Mitch killed an estimated minimum of 9,000 people in Honduras, 2,000 in Nicaragua, and hundreds of others in Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, and on missing ships. Thousands more were missing.
The toll on animals, both wild and domestic, was incalculable.
"In La Ceiba, Honduras, alone," wrote Cindy Rodrieguez of the Boston Globe, "there are 10,000 steers, 26,000 dairy cows, 3,000 pigs, 32,000 poultry, and 900 horses, according to the Honduran government. About 70% are dead; the rest are in danger."
The World Society for the Protection of Animals on November 5 sent biologist Renee Owens, veterinarian Alicia Faggella, and publicist Laura Salter to Honduras to work with a Honduran Ministry of Agriculture veterinary team.
U.S.-based animal relief groups were already stretched by the worst hurricane season since 1972. Terri Crisp, Emergency Animal Rescue Service coordinator for United Animal Nations, spent much of July in northern Florida, where she and some of the 2,100 UAN-trained disasater relief volunteers helped animals displaced by forest fires. In August they helped clean up after Hurricane Bonnie in the Carolinas and flooding in Texas. September saw them in Mississippi, after Hurricane Georges. More flooding returned them to Texas in October.
Response to Hurricane Bonnie was well-coordinated by senior personnel who learned the job--or got a refresher course-- just two years ago during Hurricane Fran.
The New Hanover County animal shelter, in Wilmington, North Carolina, put down all animals whose holding time was up, expecting an influx of newly lost strays and pets whom displaced families couldn't take with them. At North Myrtle Beach, North Carolina, Alligator Adventure evacuated all poisonous snakes, allowing the resident alligators to bury themselves safely in mud. Waccatee Zoological Farm owners Kathleen and Archie Futrell led their 400 animals into underground bunkers. Ripley's Aquarium made sure all tanks were freshly recharged, and that the backup generators had enough fuel to run for at least three days.
More than 500,000 people were temporarily ordered away from the North and South Carolina coasts, but harm to animals was light.
Virginia took the brunt. Wildlife Response, in Chesapeake, and The Wildlife Center, in Waynesboro, reported themselves inundated with baby squirrels who were blown from their nests. "A whole generation of squirrels in Virginia Beach was knocked out," Wildlife Center director Ed Clark told Associated Press.
Coming ashore at either end of Puerto Rico, Hurricane Georges reportedly tore much of the roof off the PARE shelter in Caguas, then removed the roof of the Villa Michelle shelter overlooking Mayaguez.
At Caguas, PARE Este volunteer Heidi Lepak told ANIMAL PEOPLE, "All the animals were unharmed, although the dogs got very wet" before repairs were made. Veterinary services were disrupted throughout eastern Puerto Rico, Lepak said, because electricity, running water, and telephones were off in many areas for more than a month. Lepak also claimed there was a surge of animal abandonment at Los Machos Beach, where PARE Este founders Alfredo and Sally Figueroa have long fed the beach dogs.
"Local fishers and others have told PARE that they have seen vehicles dropping off many animals at a time," Lepak reported.
Florida took the next hit, but the many Florida zoos and wildlife centers had ample warning. The Miami Metrozoo claimed to be especially well-prepared, after losing five mammals and 300 birds while suffering $15 million in property damage during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Part of the Metrozoo plan, however, called for evacuating animals to Busch Gardens in Tampa and Lion Country Safari, in West Palm Beach. That was deferred, as those zoos were also in Hurricane Georges' expected path.
As it happened, Hurricane Georges only sideswiped the Florida Keys before spinning west. The Turtle Hospital in Marathon and the Humane Animal Care Coalition, handling animal control for the Upper Keys, reportedly fared well, but at least eight rhesus macaques were killed at the Charles River Laboratories facility on Lois Key, where all but two cages were smashed, releasing about 150 of the estimated 235 monkeys who were kept there. The 800 monkeys on Raccoon Key were reportedly unharmed.
The Lois Key colony was to be relocated as soon as possible to a site in Homestead, and the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission was expected to push for expedited removal of the Raccoon Key colony as well. Both colonies were already due for removal by the end of 1999.
Mud inundated the already struggling coral reefs of the Lower Keys and Dry Tortugas. Flocks of banana finches migrating to Cuba and the Yucatan paused in Key West, while descendants of the pigeons for whom tiny Pigeon Key was named by Spanish explorers fled to parts unknown. They began straggling back about two weeks later, Pigeon Key Foundation executive director Dave Whitney said.
The big blows struck the western end of the Florida panhandle, Mississippi and Louisiana. The AHA dispatched the Animal Planet rescue van to Milton, Florida, where as many as 40 cattle drowned.
The Louisiana SPCA, fearing flooding might inundate its old waterfront shelter, hauled all 200 animals it had on hand to other shelters and veterinary clinics in Baton Rouge and Jackson, Mississippi, where temporary shelter was arranged by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League. A week later, the animals who hadn't been adopted in the interim were hauled back. The operation cost an estimated $25,000.
Jackson, in central Mississipi, was high and dry, but not so Jackson County, along the coast. The UAN-EARS team joined the National Guard in patrolling neighborhoods where as many as 1,000 homes were flooded. The Jackson County Animal Shelter took in about 50 animals displaced by Hurricane Georges, while Houston SPCA operations director Dave Garcia and four of his staff--three of them volunteers--evacuated 64 homeless dogs and 32 cats from coastal Mississippi in a 27-foot livestock van.
An estimated 30 alligators escaped from the Gulf Coast Gator Ranch east of Pascagoula, staff told Allen G. Breed of Associated Press. Fort Lake/Franklin Creed Volunteer Fire Department chief Kevin Stork skeptically noted that the ranch advertises having "thousands of gators at the Gulf Coast's oldest farm."
ANIMAL PEOPLE received no word of harm to the Mississippi National Sandhill Crane Refuge, in western Jackson County, but the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, off New Orleans, now exists mainly on maps. Already damaged by Hurricane Frances in September, the Chandeleur Islands virtually vanished, and the shoal grass beds that feed about 20,000 redheaded ducks each winter were buried in silt. Breton Island, formerly 25 miles long, was cut into more than 100 smaller islands. A lighthouse that was 3,500 feet from the northern end was left 1,500 feet from the nearest shore.
The Gosier Island brown pelican rookery disappeared. Pelicans believed to have come from the rookery turned up near Pensacola, Florida.
The Pass a'Loutre State Wildlife Management Area sustained about $1.3 million in damage to buildings and equipment. Damage at the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge and Game Preserve was put at $1 million.
As the waters receded, swarms of mosquitoes were blamed for killing livestock--chiefly by keeping the weakened animals moving until they could move no longer.
UAN-EARS in late August helped the Laredo Animal Protective Society with about 220 animals who were relocated from a public shelter near the overflowing Rio Grande.
At the northern end of the state, however, and in adjacent parts of Oklahoma, the problem was drought, leading to wind-driven grass and timber fires.
Near Davis, Oklahoma, 40-to-50-foot flames overran the tiny Creatures Great and Small exotic cat sanctuary. Given 10 minutes warning by firefighters, property owner John Rohloff, 45, saved four small cats, aided by neighbors Tracy and Shannon Beasley, Richard Carter, and Robby Barber, but lost a Siberian/Bengal hybrid tiger, a two-year-old lion, a one-year-old lioness, and a 10-month-old puma--along with his trailer home--and reported escaped with his own life only by diving into a muckhole, breathing from an air pocket under a rock ledge as cedar trees exploded overhead.
As of October 1, 9,228 reported wildfires had burned 383,839 acres in Texas, razing food supplies for many small mammals and birds, but also clearing brush to start new grasslands--whenever some rain fell.
But the rain fell mainly in south-central Texas. Floods killed at least 17 people, and swept as many as 50,000 cattle down the Guadalupe, San Marcos, and Colorado rivers, along with balls of fire ants. Most of the cattle survived. About a third, however, were not branded. Roundup crews had no idea whose they were.
In Victoria, 14 snakes drowned at the Texas Zoo and four more disappeared before the remaining 257 animals could be evacuated. The Victoria Animal Shelter also had to evacuate, with help from the Six Flags Humane Society, which housed the displaced animals in ahastily converted warehouse.
As of early November, there was still little sign of anything returning to normal.