Apr. 21--SAND HILLS -- Terri Mattison was avoiding answering her voicemails.
A woman had left a panicked message after finding out the house she had moved into already had occupants -- a litter of puppies. She wanted The Lucky Puppy Rescue, a local shelter, to take them in.
The problem, Mattison said, is she already is drowning in puppies since Hurricane Michael.
"I'm putting off the call because I don't have any good help to offer," she said. "I'm in rescue, but I need someone to rescue us."
The Category 5 storm that ripped through the Panhandle on Oct. 10, leveling housing and fences, has been an unfolding disaster for local nonprofit animal rescues. First, they had to deal with the destruction of their own facilities and homes, an ongoing issue. Then, the surrenders started coming in from people whose homes and apartments were so damaged that they no longer could care for their pets.
"It's heartbreaking. I had one lady surrender her 13-year-old dog," said Amy Shepherd of Heartland Rescue Ranch. "Thirteen. These are family members. ... They're having to give up family members."
And then, with the fences down, there's been more chances for dogs to roam and meet other dogs, which has led to an increase in puppies, Shepherd and Mattison said.
"I had to bring puppies home with me," Mattison said. "I ran out of room."
Workers at both shelters said the number of animals they are taking in has doubled since the hurricane. Heartland, which also takes in barn animals, currently has 115 animals at its facility, and Lucky Puppy reported taking in about 200 animals a month now, compared to the 100 it used to take in. It's gotten to the point where both said they sometimes are forced to turn away animals, directing people to county animal control. So far, Bay County animal control has not seen an increase in intake, according to officials.
One of the biggest problems is a critical piece of the rescue equation is missing -- homes for the animals to go to.
Three out of every four buildings in Bay County sustained hurricane damage, property appraiser data shows, displacing thousands of people and therefore their pets. It put more animals into shelters and means there are fewer places for them to go to, putting both sides of the equation out of whack. For there to be a forever home, there has to be a physical home first.
"There's nowhere for them to go to," Mattison said. "It's tough. It's really tough. I don't know what to do to make it better."
The one option that is on the table, Mattison and Shepherd said, is working with other shelters in the North, where animal rescues routinely take in "Dixie dogs" from the South as they tend to not have the same issues with overcrowding.
Lucky Puppy has its own foster-based satellite facility in Saratoga Springs, New York, and works regularly with a facility in Pennsylvania. But the space at those options is limited, Mattison said, and it doesn't meet the current demand.
She's tried to work with other shelters, but said so far nothing has worked out. In some cases, she said, shelters have wanted the puppies but not the older dogs, which is a deal-breaker for her as all the animals need help. In other cases, it's been the money. Each take costs about $300 for the medical care and transport, and she asks the agencies that take the dogs -- and therefore will collect the adoption fee -- to contribute half. That's often a deal-breaker for the other agencies, she said.
"They want me to be a free taxi," she said. "Nobody knows what we are going through."
It's not just the dogs, but six months later the shelters still are struggling with the damage. At Lucky Puppy, some buildings are just now getting roofs and at one of its locations there aren't fenced in areas for the dogs.
At Heartland, the horse pastures are full of debris piles instead of grass. The horse shelters are leaning, but usable. Shepherd estimated rebuilding its education center would cost about $50,000.
It's not just the Heartland facility, Shepherd's own home was a total loss, forcing her to find another place to stay.
"We tarped the roof," she said. "But the house has a taken a back burner."
Because at least for now, it's animals all the time. It's daunting, she said, but also a blessing to be able to help.
"My day never ends," Shepherd said. "I'm going 24/7. At 11 o'clock someone called me last night with two dogs they needed to find somewhere for."
And just like that, she had two more dogs on her hands. ___
This article is written by Katie Landeck from The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.