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In Joplin, Humane Society rescues, reunites pets with their families

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2011 - On Sunday evening, Elizabeth Lawrence ducked down in her wheel chair, half in the bathroom of her duplex, holding tight to her small, warm pomeranian, Izabella. As the tornado that tore through Joplin that night raged all around, pieces of her home fell down on her back.

In her arms, Izabella shivered and shook.

After the storm, after two young men helped shovel Lawrence out of the wreckage, Izabella kept shaking. Lawrence and her dog slept a few short hours in their home that night, she said on Friday, because all of the volunteers who came by said she'd have to leave her dog.

"I said, well, I'm not going."

The next day, though, more help came and this time it was for both Lawrence and her dog, who are still together at an emergency Red Cross shelter at Missouri Southern State University. There, people and animals are being sheltered in separate spaces

"We're together," Lawrence said over the phone from that shelter run by the Humane Society, where she'd gone to visit Izabella. There with her was Pat O'Donnell, a St. Louis-based Humane Society volunteer who's been in Joplin since Tuesday.

O'Donnell said she went straight to the university and hasn't seen much of what's left from Sunday's tornado that left 152 missing and 132 dead so far. But she has seen a few people get reunited with their animals, and others, who are staying at the shelter, get a little relief on their daily visits. During that time, she said, people who've lost so much have a few minutes of normal with their pets.

"They're just as grateful as can be that we're able to take care of their animals for them," O'Donnell said.

In addition to feeding, walking and caring for the animals of people in the Red Cross shelter, a 23-person team is now working in Joplin with rescue and reunification, said Jeane Jae, vice president of communications with the Humane Society of Missouri.

Brian Williams, of Lake of the Ozarks, is chief statewide animal cruelty investigator with the Humane Society and has been in Joplin since Monday night. He said the number of animals rescued so far is in the mid-hundreds and the last count he heard was that about 400 animals had been brought into the emergency shelter at the university.

Six teams a day are working in the community.

"We're still in that phase," Williams said on Friday. "Even this morning."

After Hurricane Katrina, the Humane Society of the United States rescued 10,000 animals, according to the agency, but many more couldn't be saved. A year later, Jae said, the federal government mandated that animal rescue be part of emergency response plans with the PETS act, or Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards of 2006.

In Missouri, the Humane Society of Missouriis the lead agency in rescue, recovery and reunification of animals. After Katrina, which had much more widespread destruction, Jae said, about 30 percent of animals weren't able to be reunited with their owners.

"But that means that a huge number, 70 percent, reunited, which is kind of amazing when you consider the destruction."

Jae thought that even more animals will be reunited with their families in Joplin, and reunification is the first priority. However, she said, not all families will be able to care for their animals when they themselves don't have homes or jobs. In that case, the Humane Society works to get the animal to a loving second home.

Still, she said, getting those animals back to their people is best.

"Once you've found all your family, your pets are the very next thing. They are family as well."

And even five days after the tornado struck, Jae said its likely that more pets are out there, possibly hiding or skittish. They're resourceful, she said, and resilient.

"We'll stay as long as the need is there, as long as authorities will allow us to be there, as long as there's a chance that pets can be found."

The Humane Society of Missouri has a special Facebook page to keep people updated about what's happening in Joplin, called Joplin Animal Rescue.

It was there the Beacon first learned of Lawrence's story. Not only did she survive Joplin's tornado, she said, but she made it through Hurricane Katrina, as well, that time with her pomeranian Precious. Precious died in 2009 after Lawrence moved to Joplin, and she swore she'd never get another animal.

When she saw an ad for one, though, in the spring of 2009, she called and asked for more information. The man selling Izabella brought her by.

"She looked at me," Lawrence said, "and it was on."

After the tornado, Lawrence doesn't know what she would have done if she couldn't have her dog with her.

"I couldn't leave her. I just couldn't," she said. "But God found a way."

On Friday afternoon, the two spent a little time together as rain continued falling in Joplin.

Kristen Hare