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Barre animal lovers help shelter pets displaced by Vermont flooding

 A woman pets a small brown cat through a crate. A sign on the crate reads "Caution: Escape Artist"
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Cathy Plas, co-founder of the Central Vermont Disaster Animal Response Team, gives some love to an "escape artist" cat named Jo Jo.

Preservation of human life was the top priority for flood rescue crews last week, but for many of the people who had to evacuate their homes and apartments, pets are family too.

Many of those displaced animals are now boarding at an ice arena in Barre City, where the Central Vermont Disaster Animal Response Team has sheltered about 50 beloved pets over the past 10 days.

Cans of wet cat food and bags of kibble sat on plastic folding tables lined up just inside the entrance of the BOR Ice Arena in downtown Barre. It was almost dinner time. And the plaintive cries of hungry pups echoed off the walls of a 21,000 square-foot facility that can fit about 800 cheering hockey fans.

Cathy Plas co-founded the central Vermont chapter of the Disaster Animal Response Team in 2017.

“I personally have a little dog that is like a family member to me and if I was told I had to leave her behind, I don’t think I could do that. It would be heartbreaking,” Plas said. “So I reached out to join my local chapter and realized that there wasn’t one.”

Plas is an animal lover, as is everyone else working at this all-volunteer shelter across from the Red Cross shelter — for humans — next door. But the effort is about human welfare, too.

 A small white bunny sits in a crate in a bathroom.
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Bun Bun just doing his thing in his crate, in a bathroom at the ice arena in Barre, which was turned into a disaster relief animal shelter.

Sometimes, Plas said, in order to save a person, you need to be able to save the pets that live with them. It’s a lesson the country learned during Hurricane Katrina.

“Because when there was rescue opportunity, they said they can take you, but you have to leave your pets, and they refused. And so lives were lost during Hurricane Katrina because they refused to leave their pets,” she said.

You need a place to put those pets. And Plas and other volunteers have turned the boys’ locker room here into a living quarters for the dozen or so cats whose flooded-out owners can’t care for them right now.

A sign on Jo Jo’s crate warns caretakers to be vigilant.

“Yes, she is a bit of an escape artist,” Plas said. “She likes her attention and she will do everything in her power to get out of her cage and get into your lap.”

A rabbit, nicknamed Bun Bun by her temporary family here, wrinkled her nose through the bars of a crate in the bathroom.

There are about a half-dozen dogs sheltered in crates in smaller rooms around the ice rink.

Milo’s a tiny little thing with a brown body and white chest who looks like he’s smiling when he pants. Xena’s a short-haired lap dog who looks appropriately concerned about the situation she’s found herself in.

“Pets that are loving and sociable have become withdrawn,” Plas said of the stress and trauma displaced pets experience. “They need more time, quiet time to themselves, so we are trying our best to just keep them safe and give them a space to decompress.”

Owners stop by all the time to take their animals for a walk, or just sit and hold them — owners like Kristin Hall, whose home on Vine Street in Barre City was inundated last week. She and her four kids can’t live there right now, and she’s not sure if they’ll ever be able to go back.

 A woman stands outside holding two small dogs in each arm.
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Kristin Hall holds her dogs, Princess and Buttercup, who have been staying at the disaster shelter for pets in Barre since Hall's home was damaged in the flood.

Hall was at Boy Scout camp with her kids in Eden when the river overtook her house. Her dad was able to rescue her dogs, but she didn’t know how she was going to be able to take care of them.

“There was no place to take them outside, there’s no running water, there’s no electricity,” Hall said.

Hall’s Mexican hairless dogs have been staying at the ice rink since July 13.

Hall said losing your home is an incredibly disjointing experience. But in the parking lot outside the ice rink, with Princess on one leash and Buttercup on the other, she was smiling — through tears sometimes, but smiling.

She said she can’t really imagine what it’d be like if she didn’t have her dogs to get her through this experience.

 A small brown-and-white dog stands in a crate.
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Milo is one of the oldest dogs boarding at the animal shelter for pets who've been displace by the flood in Barre.

“And to know that I didn’t have to give them up. First of all that we didn’t lose them, but to know that I didn’t have to give them up, because they’re safe,” she said.

Other local Disaster Animal Response Teams are doing similar work in other hard-hit areas of the state. The shelter in Barre will be up and running at least as long as the Red Cross shelter is in operation.

And then, Plas said, they’ll figure out how to do it better the next time disaster hits.

“I know that our next monthly member meeting, we’re going to do a huge debrief and we’ll hash through what worked, what didn’t,” she said.

As far as Hall is concerned, they’re doing just fine as is.

“To know that their needs are met so that I can take care of the basic needs for everybody else right now — it’s just tremendous,” she said. “I don’t even know how to say thank you for the people that have just stepped up around here.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:

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