Joplin marches forward

Adopt-a-thon finds homes for 745 displaced pets in two days

July 12, 2011 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

More than 2,000 people attended an adopt-a-thon June 25 and 26 in Joplin, Mo., of pets left homeless by the May 22 tornado. Photo courtesy Joplin Humane Society.
Here’s one measure of how the city of Joplin, Mo., picked itself up and started to put itself back together after a tornado of almost inconceivable violence tore through the community:

Just one month after the May 22 storm, the Joplin Humane Society held an adopt-a-thon that found homes for 745 pets in a whirlwind two days. Each animal had been spayed or neutered, microchipped, vaccinated and tested — dogs for heartworm and cats for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus. Injured animals had been treated. Adoption fees were waived.
How did they pull it off? With a combination of guts, spirit and outpouring of help from volunteers near and far — factors that have contributed to the overall ongoing restoration of Joplin, residents and other observers report.

“We had volunteer vets come out of the woodwork,” said Karen Aquino, executive director of the Joplin Humane Society. “For the first three weeks we had 12 vets from dawn to dusk. Some came from out of state and weren't licensed (in Missouri) so they worked as techs.”

One veterinarian who joined the rush to assist was Dr. Nate Lissant, who traveled a relatively short 75 miles from his home in Springfield. “People from everywhere were coming to help,” reported Lissant, who is director of member relations for the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession. 

“A guy from Japan came because Springfield has a sister city there and Springfield sent help after the tsunami,” Lissant said. “People from Tuscaloosa (Alabama) came to help after they were hit so hard (by a tornado) there in April. There was a tech from British Columbia that I worked with at the adopt-a-thon who came to this country just to help. I have never seen so many people drop all pretense of any prejudice and hold a hand out to other humans in such a compassionate manner.”

Volunteers did everything from cook to clean up and sort trash, Lissant reported. Even professional athletes from the Kansas City Chiefs football team and St. Louis Cardinals baseball team pitched in.

The tornado that killed 159 people in the town of 50,000 and injured more than 1,000 was rated EF-5, the top of the scale in ferocity. The National Weather Service called the Joplin twister “the deadliest since modern recordkeeping began in 1950.”

Buildings, livelihoods and lives were destroyed. But today, survivors are rebuilding the city and their spirits. A trauma treatment center was established to provide mental health services to affected children and families. Residents are trying to achieve a sense of normality: They celebrated the Fourth of July, and the city’s annual Boomtown Days festival will still take place in August.  

The City of Joplin estimates more than half the debris has been removed. Construction noise is now part of the city’s rhythm.  

Veterinary clinics are not quite back to life-as-usual, but they’re well on their way. 

Dr. Jim Christman’s Parkview Animal Hospital is operating out of a trailer in the clinic’s parking lot. Early reports that the clinic would close permanently were erroneous; the clinic will re-open in mid-August. 

“The entire inside was destroyed and the back wall and runs were torn apart, but as far as the structural part, it was okay. We had to replace bricks on the front,” said Rachel Schwartz, a receptionist at Parkview. “All of our boarders were okay. We lost some clients; we had several that passed away.”  

Dr. Ben Leavens of Main Street Pet Care also lost a few clients to the tornado, though he has no tally of how many among his 15,000 patients were affected.

Work on his 10,000-square-foot clinic and 5,000 square-feet parking structure isn’t quite done – the roof was lost and water damage was extensive, and the HVAC system destroyed – but the business has been open since July 5. “We’re extra busy now that we’re open,” Leavens said. “All areas are up and running.” That includes grooming, boarding and day-care services.

But beneath the appearance of normalcy, effects of the disaster run deep. For example, although Main Street Pet Care is in the middle of town, Joplin now appears to end 200 feet from Leavens’ office window. The tornado erased a 6-mile swath of the city half a mile wide starting half a block away.

Leavens, his wife, and five of his six children are living in a friend’s basement near Joplin. The apartment they were in at the time of the tornado was destroyed. They’ve been out of their house since April, when it was damaged by floods. 

“Everybody is overwhelmed,” Leavens said. “When you see clients in exam rooms, you learn a large percentage has been directly affected.”

One of Leavens' clients is a counselor. She asked Leavens if he knew anybody who was struggling, and offered free counseling.

“An hour later another client came in, a guy on disability for a bad back,” Leavens said. “He had driven by a leveled church and was flagged down to help free people. He helped remove dead bodies and 10 survivors. The whole time they were working they could hear a girl screaming. He sat and talked to her to keep her calm. He said 'I can't stop crying, I keep going over and over it in my head,' so I was able to hook him up with free counseling. People don't usually deal with that kind of trauma in daily life. You have to process that and work through it." 

He added: “There are some people who are overwhelmed and can’t move ahead. Some people can’t even process having FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) clean up their rubble. One of the most important things is to keep morale up. We do that by talking to people, we put positive messages out on message boards, we always emphasize the positive.” 

After the tornado, 1,308 displaced animals came into the Joplin Humane Society. Many were seriously injured, but only four died, according to society director Aquino.  
“We had everything from minor lacerations to impalements to deep gaping wounds; even a torsion case,” Aquino said. “Vets saw more trauma in these couple of weeks than they see in years in their practices, at least in the practices around here.” 

Among the veterinary volunteers was Dr. Maren Bell Jones of Columbia, Mo. — a 4-hour drive away — who visited Joplin just about every week for the first four weeks after the tornado. Three visits were to the shelter clinic, and one was to assist people. 

“It will take months, if not years, to get back to some amount of normalcy,” Jones observed. “But even week by week, you could see some level of progress being made. I tried to emphasize to people that I saw progress being made because when you see it day by day, you get used to it and don't think there's progress.” 

Jones was impressed by how much people reached out. “I was there the Thursday (four days) after it happened,” she said. “You'd be stopped at a stop light, and people would ask if you needed work gloves or a gas can or whatever.”
The staging areas were set up to look cheerful. Photo courtesy Joplin Humane Society.

Before the massive adopt-a-thon, more than 500 animals were reunited with their families. The shelter offered free spay/neuter and microchipping to those owners. Aquino estimates that 97 percent of the displaced animals were not microchipped and did not have an identification tag.  

“About 30 had ID tags but the numbers were disconnected, or old ID tags. You always get 'I gave that dog away 5 years ago,’ " Aquino said. “The one thing I say over and over is that an ID tag is your pet's phone call home. I'm a firm believer in microchips.”

Matching people with their animal companions was challenging. “We were working to properly identify pets,” Aquino said. “Everything people have is destroyed. They have no photos or records. You have 10 German shepherd mixes. We used a behavior expert to assess the pet's reaction to the person. We had one parti-colored cocker picked up by the sister of someone in the hospital, and the hospitalized sister said it wasn't her dog, so that one came back. A man had perished in the storm, and his sister didn't have a close relationship with the dog, so it was very difficult to match. We couldn't determine, but finally said, ‘If no one claims him you can have first choice on this animal.’ ”

Some people relinquished their pets after the storm. Some never picked up their pets.

“We found one pet ourselves and went to talk to the owner and she couldn’t process it,” Leavens said. “She gave us a blank stare and didn’t say anything. She just couldn’t deal with it, so we found a home for their kitten.”

When it came time for the adopt-a-thon, thousands of people came from all over — not just Missouri, but from as far away as Texas and California — to adopt or to volunteer in the titanic event. 

The main sponsor was the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which, on the first day, shot video that's now posted on YouTube. 
An adoptee is adored by his new owner. Photo courtesy Joplin Humane Society.

"The ASPCA was incredible,” Leavens said. “They spent over one million (dollars in Joplin). They functioned silently in the background but they really ran the whole thing and let everybody else take credit for it. They made the shelter shine."

Leavens was one of several veterinarians who spent significant hours getting the animals ready for the big event. His own clinic ran late sometimes because of the shelter work. “It is so cool when we tell our clients why we are behind,” Leavens wrote on a VIN message board just before the adopt-a-thon. “They just smile and do not get even a little bit upset. It is a different world after the tornado. I think a little better one.”

VIN’s Lissant was impressed by the rigor of the adoption process. “I am so proud of this operation because they would say to folks, ‘No, you cannot adopt this animal,' ” he wrote in the same online discussion. “There was paperwork to fill out and talking with an adoption counselor. There was upfront, honest conversation about what this animal needed, and what type of environment it might fit in. If there were medical concerns, the adoption counselors would bring them to a vet, and there were many there, and they would let them know what treatment was needed and how long that treatment might last.” 

Added Leavens: “It was very touching to see so many animals with very significant long-term illnesses adopted out by educated, dedicated people who fully understood what they were getting into. And the patience of the people waiting in the sun was amazing. It took hours to get into the adoption buildings in some cases.” 

Representing the irrepressible spirit of his community, signs have gone up all over town reading: “May 22, 2011. The day love came to Joplin.”

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