Within days of deadly tornadoes ripping across Southwest Ohio in early March, Evelyn Black sprang into action.
As the co-founder of Tri-State County Animal Response Team (CART), Black’s mission is to help the four-legged victims of natural disasters – family pets left behind or lost in the chaos.
The Mason real estate agent set about coordinating a donation of 15 tons of dog and cat food from Mason-based Iam’s, and secured a local business to serve as a distribution center. Dozens of people affected by the severe storms lined up over the two-day event to receive donations for their pets.
This is not Black’s first foray into the rage of nature. For years, the 57-year-old has braved the devastating aftermath of floods, hurricanes and tornadoes across the nation to ensure that family pets don’t become the forgotten victims of natural disasters.
She’s camped out in a hot, muggy field in the Gulf Coast area to rescue animals displaced by Hurricane Katrina. She’s donned wading boots and rain gear to help pets in flood-ravaged Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Increasingly, she finds herself treading through feces-infested homes to rescue animals from hoarding situations.
- Photos: Evelyn Black rescues animals
But while Black faces down disasters across the U.S., it’s her efforts at home that may prove to be her toughest battle yet.
A call to action
An animal-lover since childhood, Black has long been involved with various animal rescue organizations, both in California and after moving to Mason 10 years ago.
Then, on Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast with devastating force, packing 145-mile-an-hour winds as the Category 3 storm made landfall. In New Orleans, the massive storm overwhelmed the city’s floodwalls, unleashing tens of billions of gallons of water into St. Bernard Parish and flooding thousands of homes and businesses.
Black remembers watching the dramatic scenes on television of people being rescued or evacuated. Soon, other scenes began to emerge: Sad, starving animals perched on balconies and rooftops; pets staring out of windows waiting for owners who might never return; and dogs swimming frantically through polluted floodwater, desperately trying to reach rescue boats.
For Black, who grew up in California but often visited relatives in New Orleans, it was a call to action. “When I saw that happening in my home state, I felt drawn to go help.”
Black teamed up with friend Bonnie Morrison to spend three one-week trips to the Gulf Coast area as part of what experts would later describe as the largest animal rescue operation in history.
That first trip saw the women camping in a field in Tylerstown, Miss., about 10 miles north of the Louisiana border, in a rescue camp run by Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society. Two follow-up trips positioned them in operations in New Orleans working with Animal Rescue New Orleans.
Black still vividly recalls her first look at the flooded ruins of New Orleans. Even now, nearly seven years later, she’s nearly overcome by the haunting scenes forever etched in her mind.
“The neighborhoods were deserted, there was no life. Houses were demolished, roofs ripped off. Nothing was salvageable. It was like a bomb went off and everything was dead,” she remembers.
The storm, one of the costliest on record, dispersed 1.3 million Gulf Coast households to communities in every state from Maine to Hawaii, according to official reports. With no evacuation provision in place for companion animals, many pet owners found themselves forced – some reportedly at gunpoint – to leave their pets behind.
More than 250,000 pets are believed to have been left stranded by the storm’s destruction. Of those, Black estimates that rescue efforts helped save just 10 to 15 percent.
“Animals were starving and literally eating each other. You’d break down and cry because everything would get to you after a while. It was very intense and very emotional,” she says.
Helping animals, helping people
Almost immediately after her return from New Orleans in early 2006, Black realized there existed no disaster plans for animals in Greater Cincinnati. After collaborating with fellow rescuers Morrison and Chris Puls, Tri-State CART was born.
“We knew we wanted to have people trained to help in a disaster,” she says. “We learned from the mistakes of Katrina.”
Local or county governments activate the 75-member volunteer organization, which serves 31 counties in the Tri-state area, to assist in cases in which local animal resources are overwhelmed. Volunteers must undergo online FEMA classes and complete animal disaster training from national organizations to work on the front lines.
Although Tri-State CART exists to help animals, its effects are far-ranging, says Black. “Helping animals is helping people,” she says simply.
While Black and organizers envisioned an organization to assist in cases of disasters, instead, the organization has mostly found itself fielding calls of man-made situations, mostly involving animal hoarding cases.
In its first official case in 2010, Adams County requested CART’s assistance with an animal seizure case involving 87 large-breed dogs from one residence.
Most of the dogs were kept in squalid outdoor pens, where they received little, if any, human interaction. Several puppies had been cannibalized. Others were buried in three-foot high piles of feces. Nearly all were malnourished.
In another case out of Brown County, dozens of dead Chihuahuas were found in a large freezer and 36 more alive, but malnourished and in poor health. The owner, a reported dog breeder, kept the animals in what volunteers called “deplorable” conditions that included several inches of feces in a vacant house without electricity.
Last year, Highland County officials mobilized CART to assist with the extraction and care of about 60 cats surrendered due to foreclosure. One-third of the cats tested positive for the feline leukemia virus, an often-fatal disease that affects cats’ immune systems.
In cases like this, Black and CART volunteers work to secure temporary quarters to house the animals –usually for a duration of at least several weeks – due to the legal requirements and obstacles often involved in cases of animal seizures. They rally veterinary resources to treat the animals’ medical conditions and have them spayed or neutered and vaccinated. Volunteers, many of whom have families and full-time jobs, are also tasked with the daily feeding and care of the animals.
The work doesn’t end there. In the Chihuahua case alone, caring for the animals cost Tri-State CART $28,000. Black spends countless hours working to secure donations and contacting the media to raise awareness of adoption events.
In the three hoarding cases, volunteer efforts paid off. Virtually all of the animals were adopted out to permanent homes in one-day adoption blitzes. And it is this – the joy of happier endings – that Black says keeps her motivated.
It wasn’t long before Black’s name became well-known in the animal rescue community as the go-to person for animal hoarding cases. She’s often asked to personally assist in non-CART cases involving animal hoarding, cases she says are as much of a people problem as a pet problem.
“They are often mentally and emotionally unstable,” says Black of animal hoarders. “You have to be very diplomatic and tread lightly.”
Many hoarding cases involve cats, often because cats are easier to hide and many counties and municipalities have no laws regulating the number of cats residents can own, she says.
Black worked with one hoarder in Mason for the better part of two years to ultimately rescue 100 adult cats and kittens from the home. Many of the cats had severe respiratory infections, which resulted in at least one kitten losing an eye. Tears well in Black’s eyes as she recounts yet other cats so unhealthy and feral that a veterinarian recommended they be euthanized.
“In almost all hoarding situations, the animals are inbred, unhealthy and unsocialized, and end up being put down,” she says.
“What are you going to do with the animals you seize? They clog up your poorly operating shelters and have to be put down.”
While each hoarding case is different, it’s that common fear of what will happen to the animals that seems to unite them, says Black.
“They all start with good intentions; they all have big hearts,” she says of animal hoarders. “In almost every hoarding case, they’ve become hoarders because they’re afraid the animals will be killed at a shelter.”
A shining example
Tackling animal euthanasia rates at area shelters seemed only a natural progression for Black, who’s now among the leading coordinators of the “no-kill” animal movement sweeping across the Greater Cincinnati area.
The local campaign officially kicked off in September with the region’s first Great Shelters Conference, featuring Nathan Winograd, founder of the No-Kill Advocacy Center.
The newly formed Cincinnati Tri-State No-Kill organization holds monthly meetings and boasts dozens of volunteer members whose goal is to see every county in the region embrace the no-kill philosophy. Advocates define no-kill shelters as euthanizing fewer than 10 percent of the animals that come into shelters, and then only those animals with untreatable illnesses, injuries or behavior problems.
“The no-kill movement literally means life or death for shelter animals,” says Black. “On average, traditional open-admission municipal animal shelters can only claim a live-release rate of about 50 percent of the animals that come into their doors; the rest are put down – often because of lack of space, minor illnesses or because the animals aren’t considered ‘adoptable.’”
According to estimates from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, community shelters euthanize between three and four million animals each year. The breakdown is about 60 percent dogs and 70 percent cats.
Black says implementing no-kill programs can be done – and has been done in at least 30 communities – but it takes cooperation and a compassionate shelter staff willing to think beyond traditional animal control measures.
“Many of the programs and policies are free, low-cost and even revenue-positive,” she explains.
“Successful no-kill shelters have found that by rearranging how existing funds are currently spent and by engaging community resources, the lives of thousands of otherwise doomed animals have been saved.”
For Black, who says she devotes “too many” hours each week to animal rescue efforts, implementing a no-kill community is more than just a passion, it’s a personal mission.
She’s already busy helping to plan the second Great Shelters Conference, set for Sept. 15-16 at the Crowne Plaza in Blue Ash.
“It would be incredible if the Cincinnati area were the shining example of saving these animals’ lives, instead of saving some and killing the rest,” she says.
“If Austin (Texas) can do it, if (Tompkins County) New York can do it, if places in the South can do it, so can we.”
If you go:
What: Great Shelters Conference
When: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 15-16
Where: Crowne Plaza, 5901 Pfeiffer Road, Blue Ash
Cost: $60 through Aug. 15; $90 after Aug. 15
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