San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Volunteers Rescue Four-Legged Quake Victims

The earthquake that hit northwest of the capital Jan. 8, killing an estimated 30 people, left many survivors on shaky ground. In the confusion of not knowing where to find safety, what to take or whether to go or stay, a lot of family pets and livestock were left to fend for themselves.

Surprisingly, many pets, dogs especially, joined their owners in the trek to albergues, or shelters, set up in churches and community halls. Temporary tent towns in soccer fields and other vacant spaces became home to those whose houses were severely damaged. People living in less affected areas, such as Fraijanes or Poás, were able to return home to get their pets or pet food.

“All the animals we saw were in good condition,” reported Marcela Palma of the National Association for the Protection of Animals (ANPA) on a visit to the affected zone to bring food, leashes and other animal needs.

The areas closest to the epicenter, Cinchona, La Paz and Vara Blanca, were another story. Here the earth swayed and broke apart, leaving deep crevices in the hillsides. Mountaintops fell with force to valleys below, crushing everything on the way down. Roads fell apart, making the area impossible to traverse, and many animals – cats, dogs, caged parrots, cows, goats and pigs – were trapped when their owners were forced to leave.

Four days after the quake, the first people allowed into the area to check on the animals were Frances Jones of Lighthouse Animal Rescue in Atenas, Isabel Aguilar of Animal Abandonado in Atenas, Canadian paramedic Jack Osterbeck, animal rescuer Olga Núñez from Grecia, west of the capital, and Red Cross search and rescue volunteer Max Villalobos.

Jones’ Mitsubishi sport utility vehicle was stuffed with sacks of food and medical materials for animals of all sizes. The group was welcomed by rescue workers who were touched by the animals’ predicament. This was the first of many trips for this crew, who planned to feed and water animals and take out those who were abandoned and endangered.

“That first day, we took out 20 dogs,” Jones said. “Owners were not allowed to enter the area, and the animals were suffering. They had no food or water in four days. It seemed better to take the dogs and cats to the Animales de Asís shelter near Heredia and try to reunite them with their owners.”

In the days that followed, the team brought out “countless” dogs, cats and even goats, said Jones, who was too busy and exhausted to note numbers. What stuck in her mind, she said, were the scenes of people helping.

At one shattered house, they heard a dog barking. It had not eaten in four days. While the volunteers were feeding it, they heard a calf crying. This newborn was not going to survive without food. They gave it what they had and later told a dairyman from the area, who went back to bottle-feed the calf.

A family staying in a shelter in a nearby community asked the rescuers if they could take two dogs whose owners were among those who had died in landslides.

Osterbeck scaled down a fallen hillside to inspect a house dislodged and tipped by a mudslide. The people inside were dead, but a kitten huddled by them. With the kitten in his pocket, he was able to make the difficult ascent.

At one house, a snarling, angry guard dog on a chain would not let the volunteers near it or into the barn full of screaming cattle and pigs.

“He was just doing his job,” said Jones, who lured him to one side while the others got into the barn and spread food around for the cows and pigs. Jones also prepared a plate for the dog and pushed it toward him with a pole.

The next day, she saw a group of men carrying hay on their shoulders. The owner and his friends were finally allowed back onto the farm, and they were grateful to see the animals had been fed.

One veterinarian, known to the volunteers only as Felix, stayed overnight in the area with a retriever about to give birth, because he was unable to get it out.

And there was a schnauzer all alone that Jones carried to her car, a scene that made Channel 7 news. By the time Jones got home that night, the phone was already ringing. The dog belonged to a disabled boy, and his parents were coming the next day to pick up his pet. At the happy reunion, the father called his son on his cell phone so the boy could hear his dog’s happy barks.

There was the policeman who found a parrot on a perch in an abandoned house and asked Jones to take it. An identifying ring on the bird will help in finding its owner. A Brahman bull was so weak it could hardly walk on the unstable ground still wobbling with aftershocks. Food, water, vitamins and coaxing were needed to get it up to a safer area.

“He almost didn’t make it,” said Jones, who helped save the bull.

In another pasture, volunteers broke down fences so cows and calves could move into sturdier areas with grass and water. Jones and her volunteers were pleased with the response, she said.

“Everyone – owners, police, Red Cross, families downed by the disaster and cooks and workers in the shelters – were wonderful and willing to help. We fed and watered hundreds of animals and moved many to safer ground,” she reported.

Animals taken to the shelter were examined and cared for by vets and veterinary students from the NationalUniversity in Heredia. Photos will be circulated in the disaster area and are posted at Pets not reunited with families will be put up for adoption. For information on adopting an animal or to help, call Animales de Asís at 2267-6012.


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