Makeshift shelters offer pets a safe haven from flood

Fargo-area fairgrounds and the Red River Zoo have taken in animals.

South Fargo resident Debbie Faber says goodbye to Peanut, her rabbit, at the Red River Zoo in west Fargo on Saturday. The Faber family brought their two rabbits to the zoo and their cat to the fairgrounds on Friday after they evacuated their home.

Matt Mead

South Fargo resident Debbie Faber says goodbye to Peanut, her rabbit, at the Red River Zoo in west Fargo on Saturday. The Faber family brought their two rabbits to the zoo and their cat to the fairgrounds on Friday after they evacuated their home.

FARGO, N.D. âÄî When the Red RiverâÄôs water continued to rise, posing an increasingly real threat to their home, the Faber family packed their bags for an unintended vacation from everyday life. Since leaving their south Fargo home Thursday, the Fabers have waited with the rest of their community to see whether their house âÄî and Fargo âÄî will stay dry. In the meantime, rising water drove the family out of their home and to a hotel on higher ground. But three things are missing: Tasha, Peanut and Shadow . The no-pets-allowed Ramada left the family to seek shelter not only for two parents and two kids, but also a cat and a couple of rabbits. âÄúWe had them on the second floor with a big chunk of food and water and hoped for the best,âÄù Kevin Faber said. âÄúIt was [hard to leave them], but what do you do? The hotel wouldnâÄôt take them, and it was too risky to leave the kids so you have no choice.âÄù That is, until he heard about services in the area designed to provide safe havens for pets of flood-threatened owners. The rabbits are staying in the Red River ZooâÄôs classroom, which Executive Director Paula Grimestad has converted into a space for peopleâÄôs more exotic pets. Currently, itâÄôs a temporary home to about a dozen birds, a few snakes and the FabersâÄô two rabbits. For more typical pets, the area humane society and Sacramento-based United Animal Nations , which travels to disaster areas to provide shelter and care to displaced animals, staged a makeshift pet boarding house on the Red River Valley Fairgrounds . Housing mostly dogs and cats âÄî including the FabersâÄô Tasha âÄî with a goat and two pigs, animals at the shelter numbered more than 150 Saturday afternoon, not including almost 200 horses. After opening Thursday, the shelter and zoo saw an influx of pet drop-offs when on Thursday authorities forecasted an unanticipated spike in the riverâÄôs crest level âÄî potentially, many feared, exceeding the dikes. Since then, some say the river crested Saturday and stayed below most barriers in Fargo, slowing the pet drop-offs. Some pet owners had even picked up their companions by Saturday afternoon, but water rescue teams stood by in case a sudden deluge breaks through sandbag blockades. After some flooding Saturday night, the zoo took in a rat and three parrots. ItâÄôs necessary to have a place for animals to safely stay because owners often have a difficult time leaving them behind. Paramedics called Grimestad on Friday night when a disabled woman they were trying to evacuate from her home refused to leave her birds behind. âÄúIf thereâÄôs not a place for animals to go, the people wonâÄôt go either,âÄù said Diann Wellman , director for UANâÄôs Emergency Animal Rescue Service in Region 5, which includes the Fargo area. Grimestad drove to the womanâÄôs home to get the birds, which is far enough from the river and on high enough ground to be assured safety. The birds are now safely inside the zoo. âÄúThatâÄôs her family,âÄù said John Lyons , a pavilion coordinator at the zoo. âÄúThatâÄôs what keeps these people going are their pets. ThatâÄôs what a lot of people donâÄôt realize, is how important your pets are to you.âÄù In the large barn at the fairgrounds, side-by-side kennels fill the corridors. Many are still available for drop-offs. Cats are tucked away in a quiet back corner, and dogs line the hallways. Each pet has an exhaustive fact sheet, filled out by owners at the 24-hour drop-off area, to help volunteers âÄî most of them experienced animal handlers âÄî maintain routines for the animals and attend to special needs. The shelter, for now, is open indefinitely, pending flood developments. Water rescue boats are on hand if waters rise quickly, stranding pets. âÄúOur job is to make sure every family is reunited with every pet,âÄù Fargo-Moorhead Humane Society Executive Director Nukhet Hendricks said. Ultimately, if the flood displaces too many families, others could need to step in as foster pet owners. The 1997 flood that destroyed much of the area has encouraged people to move their pets to shelter as a precaution, Wellman said, avoiding possible chaos later. âÄúPeople always think this isnâÄôt going to happen, but it has happened here before,âÄù she said, noting the destruction and panic of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, floods where she was stationed in a similar effort last year. As a comparison, 1,200 pets ended up in that shelter. As for the Fargo pets, especially a few on-site horses that are largely confined to stalls except for a small open area, Wellman said, âÄúItâÄôs important to keep them contained and happy and their stress levels low.âÄù The Fabers stopped by the fairgrounds to see Tasha, their cat, Saturday afternoon âÄî a day after they dropped her off. They brought dog and cat supplies to contribute to the donation-based volunteer effort there. They showed up just after 3 p.m., when Saturday the shelter started a daily hourlong break where volunteers shut the lights off and some can head home if they wish. Mostly, this is to calm the animals and give busy volunteers a reprieve.

A volunteer walks a dog Saturday at the makeshift fairgrounds shelter in west Fargo. More than 150 pets were brought to the shelter from families who feared their homes would flood.

After that, the Fabers drove a few miles to the zoo to visit Peanut and Shadow, their rabbits. The auburn, fuzzy Peanut and black, big-eyed Shadow seemed happy to see their family again, as they cuddled against Debbie Faber and Sarah , 11. âÄúPlaces like this, places like the humane society, are a godsend,âÄù Kevin Faber said as he patted Peanut, who had comfortably nestled in his daughterâÄôs arms. âÄúBecause without it, the pets are just sort of on their own.âÄù As the Fabers were leaving, zoo staff was preparing for a woman to drop off her cockatiel, a welcome addition to the improvised bird sanctuary in the far corner of the room. âÄúJust to be able to do a service like that, to make people feel better, it means a lot to us,âÄù Lyons said. âÄúIt means a lot to these people too, but it means a lot to us. WeâÄôve all got a passion for animals.âÄù The zoo has space for more animals, but doesnâÄôt expect too many more unless the area flood situation gets rapidly worse. Like the rest of the Fargo-Moorhead area, Grimestad is waiting. But with the current limited load of about a dozen birds, three snakes and two rabbits, there is room for more. And the zoo will care for them as long as necessary. âÄúPeople without pets donâÄôt realize how important pets are,âÄù Lyons said. âÄúThey donâÄôt get it. They say itâÄôs just an animal âÄî no, itâÄôs not.âÄù âÄîKarlee Weinmann is a senior staff reporter.