US Coast Guard helps IFAW deliver aid for animals on St. John

The US Coast Guard helps IFAW's Disaster Response teams access the islands affected by Hurricane Irma.It’s my first time deploying with IFAW’s Disaster Response team, and it has been an eye-opening experience. The team was sent to the US Virgin Islands of St. John and St. Thomas to assess the impact of Hurricane Irma, and to inform the relevant authorities of what is needed to recover from the devastation.

We arrived on Saturday afternoon on the US Virgin Islands, and the situation here is dire. The trees on these once-lush tropical islands have been left brown and lifeless. Ships are sunk in the harbors, their masts poking out of the water, making our own navigation extremely difficult. Buildings all over the islands have been flattened. These communities, and the animals they cherished, have been left scrambling to recover.

Never having witnessed a disaster, I expected to see hopelessness and despair. These communities have lost everything, animals services are strained beyond imagination. Chickens scratch through piles of debris looking for the smallest bit of food. Iguanas scour through garbage. Dogs had to be abandoned as evacuation orders began rolling in.

iguana finds trash after hurricane irma hits the us virgin islandsBut in the face of such horrific devastation, the IFAW team has been met with nothing but gracious hospitality. The hardship that people are facing has brought these communities together, and as soon as people discover that we are here to help animals they offer their own help.

Just getting here took the help of numerous organizations and one very generous animal lover. We set out Friday morning from the United States, landing in San Juan. Thankfully, arranged transportation for our team aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley, Captained by Lieutenant Kathryn Ustler. We escorted more than 1,200 kg of dog food to be distributed to local sheltering operations, which was so generously donated by PetSmart Charities and Royal Canin through GreaterGood.

us coast guard helps to transport dog food after hurricane irmaThe Coast Guard crew was an incredible force. They formed a human chain and loaded this mountain of dog food onto their ship in a matter of minutes. Once on board, they shared their rather confined space with us, allowing us to take over their mess hall as our improvised operations center. We were on board the Horsley for nearly 24 hours, and when morning came they offered us a full-cooked breakfast. Even though we had obviously made their jobs harder, they gave us everything they could to make our jobs easier – all for the love and care of animals.

Even though the Coast Guard tried to arrange transport for us to St. John, the lack of communications with the island made this extremely difficult. In the end, we decided to offload the food and both teams on St. Thomas, and try to find transport for the food and one team to St. John on Saturday.

We felt extremely lucky to have been granted passage by the Coast Guard. And our luck kept coming – docked along the same pier as our Cutter was a pleasure boat. Some of us noticed that the boat was named Sam, with paw prints around the name. As the Coast Guard crew reformed their human chain to offload the dog food, the captain of the boat approached Shannon Walajtys, IFAW’s Disaster Response Program Manager, and the leader of our crew. His name was Ivan, he loves animals, and he wanted to know how he could help.

So just like that we had our transportation from St. Thomas to St. John, along with 1,200 kg of dog food. We learned that Ivan, an engineer from San Juan who was in St. Thomas to assess buildings, had named his boat after his beloved golden retriever Sam. Unfortunately Sam passed away last year, but his love continues to shine in Ivan’s generosity.

And so the IFAW Disaster Response team and the gift of dog food found their way to St. John, an island that was thrashed by Irma, and may soon be hit by Hurricane Maria. Our small crew of five was prepared to unload the food ourselves, though we were secretly wishing that the amazing Coast Guard crew was still around to help.

humane society of st thomas helps transport ifaw teams after hurricane irmaThen, as with the rest of our voyage, we were met by incredible generosity on the pier of St. John. A small ad hoc organization calling themselves Love City Strong was on the docks helping to organize evacuations. These young people – most of whom had nothing to do with official relief efforts – quickly formed yet another human chain, and once again this mountain of dog food went from one place to another in a matter of minutes.

St John Animal Care Center during hurricane irma responseRyan Moore, shelter manager at the local St. John Animal Care Center, and Heidi Stout, veterinarian at Canines, Cats, and Critters, had organized trucks to transport the food from the pier to the shelter. After nearly two days of travel, this generous gift reached its destination and our team could begin the work of assessing exactly what the island’s animals need to recover from the decimation of hurricane Irma.

Please check back here for more updates on this important work. Our teams on St. Thomas and St. John, as well as our team on Antigua and Barbuda, will continue to report back over the next few days. Once initial assessments are complete, IFAW will maintain our presence in the Caribbean to ensure these communities and their animals are fully supported during the long process of recovery. 

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Senior Program Advisor
Senior Program Advisor
Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Veterinarian
Gail A'Brunzo, Manager, Wildlife Rescue
Manager, Wildlife Rescue
Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Loïs Lelanchon, Animal Rescue Program Officer
Animal Rescue Program Officer
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy