Three weeks after Ian, hard-hit Floridians are still searching for lost pets

Photo for The Washington Post by Octavio Jones.

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. – As the water from Hurricane Ian’s storm surge rose, Joseph Salvaggio climbed into his attic and huddled with his two cats. They stayed there for 20 hours, Mittens and Zoey keeping their owner warm as he waited for someone to rescue them.

“We were trapped in the attic with no place to go,” Salvaggio, 83, said. “They laid there very quietly. They were very, very good.”

When rescue workers helped him out of his wrecked home the next day in Fort Myers Beach – one of the hardest hit parts of Southwest Florida – Salvaggio gently dropped the cats down. Indoor cats spooked by the storm and the strangers, they darted through the opening left where the front door had been torn off its hinges.

Salvaggio lost many precious belongings, including the urn holding the ashes of his wife of 43 years, Arlene, who died in 2021. But losing his cats, cherished pets that he and his wife had raised, was unbearable.

“They’re my family,” he said.

Hurricane Ian killed more than 100 people in Florida. It also resulted in scores of animal deaths and left many others missing. Three weeks after Ian made landfall, animal rescue workers are still finding pets that disappeared during the storm and trying to connect them to their owners. The rescuers say the same factors that led to human deaths – late warnings, reluctance to evacuate, immense storm surge – likely caused hundreds of pets to perish as well.

“We have a situation where there’s so much devastation and loss, because people didn’t think it was going to hit here, so they stayed,” said Lawrence Garcia, the medical director of the Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service team at the University of Florida. “It could be they couldn’t get out in time, or they lacked resources to evacuate. What we see is many people will take care of their animals before themselves. Their pet is a family member.”

It’s not just family pets that were impacted. Hundreds of large farm animals were killed from high winds and floods that tore through agricultural fields. Over 200 hundred cows perished at the Dakin Dairy Farm in Myakka City, Fla. A preliminary assessment by researchers at the University of Florida estimates up to $222 million in losses of “animals and animal products,” which includes everything from honey and eggs to fish and horses.

Many of those animals that survived are now contending with unexpected side effects like skin irritations and parasitic infections brought on by stress and exposure to contaminated water. With many veterinary offices closed or destroyed, owners are turning to emergency mobile units for help. University of Florida vets say they treated more than 400 pets, including cats, dogs, goats, pigs and bearded dragons, from a parking lot in the days after Ian.

“As stressful as it us for us to go through a hurricane,” Garcia said, “it can be even more stressful for them.”

Among those seeking help on a recent afternoon was Nancy Sanders, who stayed in her Fort Myers condominium with her husband and their 11-year-old dog, Deeno, during the storm. They put up shutters and hunkered down as the wind and rain ravaged their community. The trio survived but soon after, Deeno began scratching and biting his fur.

Their regular vet’s office was severely damaged. So they turned to Garcia’s team, which gave the dog a shot to help with the itchiness. Not long after, he was on the mend.

“Deeno is doing great,” Sanders said. “His sores have mostly healed.”

The University of Florida team has seen a gamut of animal ailments in Ian’s aftermath. Cats have arrived with eyes so badly injured by debris they had to be removed. A pet goat named Archie was brought in after his owner noticed the animal’s gums had turned white – the product of a parasitic infection. Garcia’s team gave him a blood transfusion.

Photo for The Washington Post by Octavio Jones.
A dog with a bandaged paw, in Fort Myers, Fla.

“They said we got him here just in time,” Alanah Engh, Archie’s owner, said.

Engh lives more than 15 miles inland, but Hurricane Ian dropped so much rain that rivers, streams and ponds overflowed and flooded her property for days afterward.

“The water got so high, it was up to the chest of one of our horses,” Engh said. “She saved her baby’s life. She was holding her foal up with her mouth, keeping it from drowning. I think we saw some miracles with these animals.”

Many pet owners are traumatized by what they endured alongside their animals. Scott Dotson weathered the storm with a neighbor and his 13-year-old German shepherd, Geronimo, from his home on San Carlos Island. As the winds grew stronger, water began seeping inside. He struggled to hold the 120-pound dog above the rising tide.

“I’m sorry buddy, I’m so sorry I got you into this,” Dotson told the dog he’d gotten as a puppy. “The whole time I was telling him how sorry I was.”

Dotson used a closet door ripped off its hinges to help hold Geronimo up. Debris from other houses – including a washing machine – crashed into his house as 150 mph winds thrashed the coast.

“A surfboard kept banging on the window, banging and banging until it finally broke the window and came in the house,” Dotson, 69, said. “We used it for flotation, and I put the dog on it. We had about a foot of air left between the water and the ceiling. We were basically treading water.”

Ten hours after the water began flooding his home, Dotson said it suddenly began to recede. Not long after the harrowing ordeal, Geronimo developed a rash, likely caused by stress.

Dotson said the dog felt better after he bathed him in peppermint soap.

“He’s doing good now, and he smells a lot better,” Dotson said. “We’ll be ok. We’re both old survivors.”

Even places not hit directly by Hurricane Ian suffered from the storm’s vast size and rain.

“We saw cattle stranded in water. They couldn’t get themselves out,” said Robin Ganzert, president and chief executive of American Humane, a group that helps protect children and animals from harm and abuse. Her group helped rescue dozens of large animals from flooded fields, mostly around Arcadia, in Southwest Florida. “We would walk with them to dryer land. The water was up to my chest in some cases. What our rescue teams saw was very sad.”

But they also witnessed incredible acts of animal survival. A small herd of goats climbed to the top of a children’s outdoor playset and stayed there until the water level dropped enough to get them to dry land. American Humane’s team took food and fresh water in the meantime.

Elsewhere, some wild animals, apparently guided by instinct, fled ahead of the storm. Bald eagles Harriet and M15 left their slash pine tree in Fort Myers – their home during the annual mating season – a day before Hurricane Ian struck. Now they are rebuilding their treetop nest after it was destroyed by the cyclone.

For domestic pets, the crisis of a hurricane can last longer.

Ahead of the storm, dozens of animal rescue groups moved more than 1,000 shelter cats and dogs as far away as Seattle to foster homes or to no-kill shelters – anticipating that they’d get an influx of pets lost or abandoned after Ian. Sure enough, shelters in Southwest Florida are now full. The next wave of incoming animals is likely to be those belonging to owners who have lost their homes and realize they can no longer care for them.

“They feel forced to make that really heartbreaking decision because they want to do what’s best for their animals,” said Sarah Baeckler, chief executive of the Humane Society of Naples.

For Salvaggio, whose two cats went missing after the storm, the recovery has been complicated by the loss of his pets.

There has, however, been some good news since Ian. He found his wife’s ashes, caught in a tangle of mangroves, as he picked through the destruction. Etched into the urn alongside her name is a cat, signifying the love the couple had for their pets.

And two weeks after the storm, Lee County Domestic Animal Services found Zoey, a 7-year-old tabby, not far from his home. Workers captured their reunion on camera. A relieved and ecstatic Salvaggio extended his hands toward the carrier as a rescuer handed the feline inside over to her owner.

But he hasn’t found Mittens yet. His daughter has printed out signs with photos of the 2-year-old black and white cat to post around the beach.

“Right now, I have my wife’s ashes, and I have Zoey,” Salvaggio said. “Once I get Mittens back, I’ll be as happy as a clam, and my life can get back to normal. I just need my baby back.”