ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For the past month, Jennifer Lockwood and a team of volunteers have been flying hurricane relief supplies to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Return flights have been filled with people looking for refuge back on the mainland. But on the most recent return flight, animals outnumbered people.
"Our last flight off St. Croix had 16 animals and four people," Lockwood said.
Hundreds of cats and dogs abandoned in the storm are now being rescued and brought stateside.
The effort to rescue pets from all three of the U.S. Virgin Islands — St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix — is being led by Sali Gear, who co-founded the Virginia-based non-profit Island Dog Rescue.
"I was already helping in St. Thomas because they had lost everything," Gear said, discussing the efforts that were underway after Hurricane Irma.
But Maria hit soon after, exacerbating the issue.
"They have no roof, they have no house to live in, they have no power and they’re going ‘how can I take care of this animal?’" Gear said.
"The need was great then, but the need is great now. Everyone thinks the storm’s passed and it’s all over but the real work really begins now.”
Gear has been working with pilots up and down the east coast to get flights for the animals. She connected with Lockwood and funded the most recent return flight to St. Pete.
But not all the animals on board were strays. Some were pets being reunited with owners who were forced to leave them behind, Lockwood said.
"It’s part reuniting with owners who are in the states who left the island and part animals who were strays that needed homes," she said.
Some owners, Lockwood said, who took "mercy" cruises or flights off the islands after the storm were not allowed to bring their pets on board with them.
But to Lockwood's surprise, even pets without owners were just as quickly greeted by families looking to take them home.
"I couldn’t believe it," Lockwood said. "Literally we were taking photos of these dogs and kittens while we were loading them in the plane and somebody at the non-profit was posting them online, and when we landed there were people here to adopt them."
Dawn Bielawski and her 11-year-old son were among those who were waiting on the tarmac.
Earlier in the day, Bielawski said she happened to see a friend's post on social media about the animals being brought back from the island.
While she said they had no plans to get a dog, Bielawski said she jumped at the unexpected opportunity. But they soon learned the dog they had chosen also had a sibling. She was asked if they wanted both.
"There was nothing to think about" Bielawski said. "We brought them both home and here we are."
The dogs, named Rocco and Roxy, were found abandoned in a truck on the island. For now, they will foster the two pit-mix pups, said Bielawski, who didn't rule out the very likely possibility of adoption down the road.
"My motto has always been ‘it takes a village and we’re now a part of that big village," Bielawski said. "We’re just a small piece to the puzzle … and however we could help, that’s what I wanted to do.”
All of the pets without owners were placed with new families.
Lockwood and Gear say planning is already underway for another flight soon.
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