Tails of survival

Joy amid tornado's destruction as owners find lost pets

May 22, 2013 at 12:41 PM ET

Central OK Humane Society
Central OK Humane Society
Vicki Lemmings tearfully reunites with dog "Baby."

Vicki Lemmings sobbed with joy as her son’s dog Baby ran up to give her a lick.

“Good girl, Grandma loves you so much,” she cooed through her tears on Tuesday evening.

Lemmings’ family had spent all day driving to various shelters in the Oklahoma City area, hoping to find their five dogs, all of whom went missing when a tornado blasted through the region on Monday.

Lemmings' son Anthony lost his home in the storm. And Lemmings had lost hope that they would find even one of the dogs in all the chaos and debris, especially since they're not allowed back into her son's neighborhood yet.

“There’s just nothing; it’s leveled to the ground,” she told TODAY.com. “I didn’t see how it could be possible.”

So when Lemmings dropped by a shelter set up by the Central Oklahoma Humane Society, she "went to the ground" when she learned they had one of her family's dogs.

“I said, ‘Open that cage and let me in there, she recounted with a laugh.

Happily, Lemmings’ family isn't the only one to find some solace amid the tornado's devastation by locating a pet. Thanks to dozens of Internet postings and the coordinated efforts of nonprofits, shelters and local volunteers, tornado victims are slowly but surely being reunited with their stranded four-legged loved ones.

The Central Oklahoma Humane Society took in around 90 dogs on Tuesday, and it’s expecting many more in the coming days, according to Christy Counts, the organization’s executive director.

“A lot of people have lost everything, and their saving grace is to be reunited with their pets,” Counts told TODAY.com. “After the Joplin tornado in Missouri, 600 to 1,000 animals were displaced, so we’re trying to prepare for that much.”

Mark Mills, 52, was heading home from work early Monday afternoon when he spotted what appeared to be a small tornado in the distance. Just four minutes later, the twister had grown into something far more ominous. Mills made a quick decision to evacuate immediately, leaving his dog and two cats behind.

“I had to get out and save myself,” he told TODAY.com. “If I had to look for the pets, I would’ve probably been dead.”

Laura Hasley
Laura Hasley
Aaron and Christi McRee reunite with their father's cat, Chloe.

Once he knew his family had made it out unscathed, Mills' thoughts quickly turned to his animals. After the tornado passed, he headed back to his flattened neighborhood in Moore, Okla., to look for them.

At first, he walked right past his house. Then he spotted his toppled mailbox in front of the razed two-story structure.

Mills found no sign of his pets in the vicinity, but a little later, his son-in-law’s stepmother and her husband returned to what was left of the house. And there they found Chloe, Mills’ 6-year-old cat, trapped under a recliner that had been crushed by another couch. She had a split lip and two broken teeth, but she was alive.

The couple dropped Chloe off at the home of Laura Hasley, a friend who used to rescue animals. In the middle of the night, Hasley took the cat to get emergency lip surgery and antibiotics. The next morning, Mills' daughter Christi and son-in-law Aaron came by to pick her up.

“She was giving her family kisses, and I could see the stress and trauma leave her body,” Hasley told TODAY.com. “She was so afraid.”

Laura Hasley
Laura Hasley
The remains of Mark Mills' home.

Mills’ daughter is still looking for two other pets, but for the moment, Mills is happy he has his "baby" to hold onto.

Many people are finding their pets in makeshift shelters, like the one set up Tuesday in the local Home Depot’s parking lot. Several organizations are working alongside each other to provide medical relief for wounded pets and connect them with owners.

The Cleveland County Fairgrounds have also been temporarily transformed into a shelter. That's where Coy Gilbert, a police sergeant, picked up his good friend and colleague's German shepherd on Tuesday afternoon. Rocky, a retired Oklahoma City police dog, had gone missing from his kennel after his owners, Dan and Lindsay Evans, sought shelter downwind from the tornado.

My foster is cuter than yours
My foster is cuter than yours
Sergeant Coy Gilbert picks up Rocky at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds.

A good Samaritan named Tony Leddy found Rocky about a mile away from his home. His paw was bleeding badly, so Leddy took him to the vet and then dropped him off at the fairgrounds, where he was identified during the night thanks to the social media efforts of friends and even strangers. Rocky and his owners were finally reunited late Tuesday afternoon.

"There were a lot of tears, a lot of smiles, a lot of hugs," Gilbert said. "These guys become more like family members than pets or partners, so everybody is really happy."

 Animal Resource Center
Animal Resource Center
A couple reunites with their dog Trixie at the Animal Resource Center.

The Animal Resource Center in Oklahoma City has also been a large part of the rescue efforts. Like many other shelters, it's been posting photos of displaced dogs and cats on its Facebook page in hopes that owners will recognize their pets. As of Tuesday evening, workers have been able to unite about five pets with their owners.

“Everybody is looking for their animals, and lots of people are trying to volunteer,” Gill Barnett, who works at the center, told TODAY.com. “This is what this community is known for — everybody pulls together.”

Video: Clean-up volunteers are turning to Facebook and other social media sites to reunite the victims of the Moore, Okla., tornado with everything from sentimental wedding and baby pictures to family pets. NBC’s Janet Shamlian reports.


Image: The funnel of a tornadic thunderstorm almost touches the ground near South Haven
Gene Blevins
A vast area of the central U.S. was warned to prepare for storms on Monday, after tornadoes killed one and injured 21 in Oklahoma and also hit Iowa and Kansas.
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