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As Irma howled, hundreds of Tampa Bay area cats and dogs got lost

David Vaughan, 64, of Tampa was reunited Wednesday with his chihuahua, Trouble, who got out in the confusion of the storm and ultimately wound up at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.
Published Sep. 15, 2017

TAMPA — A Chihuahua named Trouble escaped his pet-friendly motel. Mr. Fatty the cat ran off in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Lenny, a parrot, flew the evacuation coop.

Stormy? Squall? Survivor? Those three bolted, too.

Hurricane Irma spooked pets as much as it spooked humans, churning up a haste and a panic that separated critters from the people who care for them all over the Tampa Bay area.

Some are out there, lost and muddy. Others made it home.

"I thought he was going to be gone forever," said David Vaughan, a 64-year-old retired truck driver whose little Trouble turned up at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay after Irma's big trouble moved north.

The Facebook page Lost and Found Pets of Hillsborough County logged more than 200 new lost or found pets in recent days, a chaos that far exceeds the runaways triggered by July 4 and New Year's Eve fireworks, according to Nora Gibbs, one of the volunteer site's administrators.

"This, I've never seen before," she said. "People are finding two to three dogs at a time."

A similar page, Lost and Found Pets of Pinellas County, is also brimming with the displaced. Administrator Suzi Dill has seen traffic on the page shoot up by 50 percent this week. Without power, she couldn't inventory the newly lost or found but guesses there could be up to 200.

"LOST IN ST PETE — Got out during the hurricane as my family was coming to stay. Haven't seen her since," posted Destini Paterson, searching for a black-and-white kitty, Finn, near 34th Street and Sixth Avenue S.

"Boo and Isadora freaked out and tore window screen," a Clearwater woman wrote.

Everything about Irma was an invitation to run: the cat carrier, the suitcases, the edgy humans, the car engine, the wind noises, the power outages and open windows, the fallen fences and, finally, the generators.

"I think a lot of them got away right before the storm as people were doing preparations," Gibbs said. "Maybe it was the barometric pressure. I know my dog was acting different, and I think that affected a lot of the animals. I don't think they were as predictable as they might normally be."

In some cases, pets ran off after evacuating with owners or when they were left with friends and relatives who weren't used to animals following them through open doorways.

"When we got out of the car, he slipped out the door and ran," posted Carol Evanson, asking for help finding her green-eyed cat Miley in Brandon.

Real estate salesman Darrell Risner and his wife, Laura, were staying with family near the Harmony Ranch mobile home park in Thonotosassa when their 20-pound Siamese, Frosty, vanished. The wind had broken a window, enabling Frosty's escape.

"The bad thing about it is he doesn't know the neighborhood," said Risner, who got up at 4 a.m. Thursday to search by flashlight.

Vaughan, the retired trucker, had sought refuge with family and six dogs at an east Tampa motel near Interstate 4 when Trouble slipped out. The power had gone off. His son's girlfriend had opened a door to get air. They realized at 4:30 a.m. that one of the Chihuahuas was gone.

"I felt very upset and very lonely," Vaughan said. "He's been with me since he was a puppy."

Vaughan heard later that a police officer had found Trouble. After a couple of days, a microchip helped him get home.

Even while dealing with their own storm worries, strangers fostered lost pets over the wet weekend, either bypassing shelters entirely by posting Facebook announcements or waiting until shelters and clinics had opened to scan for microchips.

"This sweet boy washed up in our yard after the storm," Dorothy DeNicola Long of Plant City posted above a photo of a black-and-white dog. "We will check for a chip this afternoon."

Shelters expect to see more pets as they emerge from hiding places. Hillsborough Pet Resource Center director Scott Trebaposki predicts some will come out as floodwaters recede.

"We definitely think there are some animals out there that we will see in next day or two that our officers will be picking up," he said.

Pinellas County Animal Services had accepted 64 strays as of Thursday, a number that director Doug Brightwell said was higher than usual. "As people start to go back to neighborhoods, I think we're going to see the numbers climb," he said.

On both sides of the bay, county shelters have taken in pets surrendered by owners coping with storm damage. A Hillsborough couple gave up their 7-month-old cats, Carol and Ned, on Wednesday and drove off in a U-Haul truck.

"Their house is no longer habitable," Trebaposki said.

Others were luckier.

Squall, for instance. His fate changed course as abruptly as the hurricane did. One minute, his owner was telling people his 14-year old cat needed to come back home for his seizure medications. The next, there he was.

After the storm, owner Kerri Green had heard a neighbor's cat meowing in the night. She went outside to call Squall again.

There he sat, across the street. He looked okay.

"My cat is a bada--!" she wrote. "He survived Hurricane Irma!"

Contact Times staff writer Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com.

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