NEW YORK (AP) — Superstorm Sandy drove New York and New Jersey residents from their homes, destroyed belongings and forced them to find shelter for themselves — and for their pets, said owners, who recounted tales of a dog swimming through flooded streets and extra food left behind for a tarantula no one was willing to take in.
In New York City and on Long Island, the ASPCA has rescued more than 300 animals and treated or provided supplies to about 13,000, working with government and private animal welfare agencies, said ASPCA spokeswoman Emily Schneider.
City shelters took in about 400 animals along with their families in the first days after Sandy, Schneider said. There are now more than 100 in shelters with their owners, and a mobile animal medical clinic is cruising decimated neighborhoods in Queens' Rockaways and on Staten Island.
In New Jersey, the Humane Society deployed dozens of first responders using mobile units and boats to bring in about 60 displaced animals each day on the barrier islands hit by the storm.
The absence of animals that were lost or separated from their owners only adds to families' feelings of displacement and trauma, said members of emergency crews trying to rescue both.
Two weeks after Sandy made landfall on the Atlantic shore, search-and-rescue teams are being led by Animal Care & Control of NYC, a city-contracted nonprofit responding to hotline calls about pets in distress. Callers are owners forced to leave animals behind or unable to care for them, or people who see them wandering in hard-hit areas.
A Manhattan shelter takes in animals round the clock, hoping for owners to show up.
And social media teams scour the Internet for reports of lost pets, helping reunite them with owners.
Rescuing animals is mandatory under federal law, which requires local and state governments to include plans for pets in emergency procedures. Federal Emergency Management Agency funds go toward the welfare of animals in disaster zones.
New York City's human shelters are required to accept pets, and so are taxis and public transportation.
Some find it hard to understand why animals are a key concern in disasters engulfing human lives, but owners feel an attachment and responsibility to their pets, said Niki Dawson, director of disaster services for the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States.
"There's such a strong bond between people and animals that people will put their lives at risk not to leave a pet behind," Dawson said. "So they stay, even when they're told to evacuate, and that puts first responders going back for them at risk."
More than 200 dogs, cats and other pets from a devastated area of New York's Long Island are being sheltered in the gymnasium of a community college. Many belong to owners in nearby shelters and hotels.
Celebrity chef Rachael Ray is donating $500,000 to the ASPCA to help pets and families struggling to rebound from Superstorm Sandy. She said her pet food brand, Nutrish, is also shipping 4 tons of wet and dry dog food for Sandy animals, and her Yum-o! organization is donating $100,000 to City Harvest and the Food Bank for New York City.
The ASPCA will use the money to lease a building to board Sandy animals till their owners can take care of them.
Schwartz and Scooter, two black felines, came from a home that's flooded with water 5 feet deep, dark and cold in Long Beach, a heavily damaged barrier island community.
On Kate and Warren Sherwood's block, five houses were burned to the ground.
"We barely got out of our house in time," Kate Sherwood said.
They took refuge at a hotel that didn't accept cats.
"We sneaked them in and put a 'do not disturb' sign on the door — pretending we're on our honeymoon," said Warren Sherwood, 56, a systems analyst. "But after three days, they got restless and starting meowing."
The couple took them to the Nassau gym shelter, run by the North Shore Animal League America, the nation's largest no-kill rescue and adoption organization.
"We're ridiculously stressed out, we're freaked out," said Warren Sherwood. "But I'd do anything in the world for these people who are keeping our cats alive."
Also among the pets in the gym was Emma, a Manchester terrier that swam to safety through flooded streets in Freeport on Long Island, while its owners carried their cats above the water, plus some clothes they grabbed at the last minute.
"We lost our house. It's submerged," said Mark Swing, who fled with his girlfriend as the tides rose. "All we got out was our four cats and the dog, except for a few changes of clothes."
The 8-year-old terrier was "a little tired, but fine," said Swing, 48, a contractor who was in a Red Cross shelter.
Cats and dogs weren't the only pets rescued from the storms.
"We're finding chinchillas, guinea pigs, rabbits, reptiles, birds," said Dawson.
And then, there was the tarantula, left behind in the New York City borough of Staten Island, in a home inspectors deemed uninhabitable.
The spider belonged to a teenage boy who was also attached to his gerbils. He and his family were forced to evacuate.
His aunt in Brooklyn agreed to take in the gerbils, but no one wanted the hairy tarantula. The teen left it behind with lots of food — in hopes the spider could be retrieved later.
Like their owners, many animals that survived won't go home anytime soon. They're being housed and fed thanks to the kindness of strangers.
Transport trailers distributed pet food and supplies like crates, leashes and litter from a warehouse in Queens set up days before Sandy descended, said Schneider. Tons of food is being trucked in, donated by Petsmart Charities, Iams, Del Monte Foods, Purina and the Petco Foundation.
It will be months before any estimates are available as to how many pets might have died or were lost during New York's double storms.
Dawson says she's seen people stuck in shelters, wearing donated clothing, with no idea when they'll go home. But when they turn to their dog or cat, "their faces light up."
And that, she says, is why animals matter amid a human disaster.