Posted: October 30, 2014, 8:50 p.m. EDT
Sometimes a situation develops where pets and owners champion each other. In this case, it was a terrifying situation that came crashing down on Cheryl Clark and her six beloved ferrets in Biloxi, Mississippi, on August 29, 2005. It was caused by none other than Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
Thousands of pets were stranded during that horrible storm with only a fraction being rescued. Tragically, only about two dozen ferrets were found alive. Clark’s ferrets were kept alive and survived through her efforts and her efforts alone.
© Courtesy Cheryl Clark
From left to right are ferrets Farah, Buzz and Digger; three of those who survived Hurricane Katrina with Cheryl Clark.
Making A Choice
Up until the storm, Clark lived a relatively quiet life in a beautiful home set on 3-foot, stone pilings on the Gulf Coast. The happiest parts of her days were filled with giggles and dooks as she played with her six ferrets: Jewel, Bandit, Farah, Digger, Buzz and Honey Baby. One of her favorite pastimes was to go out shopping for them, and so there was always a constant flow of toys coming through the doors for the little ones. When not working as a dealer at a local casino, she contributed to the community through animal rescue as much as she was able. At one time she rescued for the KC Ferret Hotline.
"Between my health and the horrible condition that some of the ferrets that were surrendered came to me were in, it seemed like I cried every day. I took the geriatric "kids” and if one wasn’t sick, they were dying,” Clark said. But it was an emotional sacrifice she was happy to make.
When Hurricane Katrina began to take form and slowly creep across the ocean, Clark hoped it would be like Hurricane Ivan and life would return to normal a few days after it hit. She sat with her ferrets and watched the storm in the Gulf build into the beast that it was. Evacuations of the coastal areas began, but none of the emergency shelters would allow pets. Residents were told to leave their pets behind and save themselves. Many did. As Clark ran out of options, she came to the realization that she had to make a heartbreaking choice: flee or remain and try to save the innocent, furry faces that looked up to her.
Clark says that looking back on it, she knows she made the right decision when she stayed. "Several people told me to leave them and to think of myself. I was thinking of myself and knew I would not be able to live with myself if I let anything happen to them.”
She did what she could to prepare for the impending storm, and then she waited.
Hurricane Katrina Arrives
Wildlife began to react and take cover from the approaching storm, including a disoriented bat that squeezed through an opening next to the window air conditioner. Although it was a very ominous sign, it was also a good thing. "It took my mind off the storm for a while as I chased it through the house to find a way to lock it up and keep it away from the kids,” Clark said.
Meanwhile, she marveled at how brave her ferrets were, as they didn’t panic at all. She was terrified, but she remained outwardly calm to keep them calm.
Clark recalls sitting through 17 hours of hurricane force winds while Biloxi experienced one of the highest storm surges ever documented in American history. She watched as the dark waters rose beyond the tops of cars in the parking lot, then eventually through the floorboards. The tide brought 11-foot waves in with the 22-foot surge, leaving Biloxi in 34 feet of raging water.
"When the water got up to 1 inch from the top of the table I had the kids on, I laid down with them and prayed, ‘Please God don’t let anything happen to my kids,’” she said. Eventually, they all fell asleep.
When Clark and her babies woke up, they looked around to see Biloxi obliterated. What many people don’t realize due to the attention given to New Orleans is that not just had Biloxi lived through record-breaking hurricane forces, but that the coastal towns and cities of Mississippi had suffered the worst property damage of all. The hurricane destroyed 90 percent of the buildings in Clark’s beloved city. The harsh reality was that all she and her ferrets had were each other.
Nine Days On Her Own
As if the storm itself wasn’t enough, afterward rescuers couldn’t reach many of the devastated areas. People who had not drowned now faced pestilence, disease, lack of water, exposure, starvation and more. Clark bravely faced all of those life-threatening conditions along with the challenge of trying to keep her ferrets alive and well.
"We couldn’t live in the house as it was full of bacteria and mold, the yellow kind that is stringy. That stuff is toxic, and I couldn’t have the kids around that,” Clark said. "We slept on the front porch where it was cooler, that’s when the curtain covered the cage. There was so much standing water that the mosquitos multiplied by the hour. I looked like I had the measles.”
Perhaps the deadliest threat to her ferrets was the soaring temperatures and heat index that reached the triple digits. Ferrets are susceptible to heatstroke once temperatures reach above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. For hours upon days, Clark made sure her ferrets had food and water, and were kept as clean as possible. To combat the potentially deadly temperatures, she sprayed the ferrets and used a towel to fan them.
"I also dunked them in tepid water and left them wet,” Clark said. "I fanned them till I thought my arms were going to fall off, and all the while the kids thought that was cool beans because Mom wasn’t leaving to go to work. They faced the breeze and looked like they loved it, so I would fan some more.”
Eventually waters receded and rescue services gained access to the more devastated areas. However, for those with pets there was little and sometimes no help to be found.
"It was quite upsetting to call these shelters for help and be informed that they would take my kids but not give them back,” Clark said. "I asked the Red Cross for help one day as it was driving down the street and the next day they just drove past me. They told me if it was a dog or a cat they could help.”
For nine days Clark stayed by her ferrets. She slept underneath their cage to protect them from roaming dogs. Clark tearfully remembers, "I felt so alone because of my choice of companion. Thank goodness I had the kids or I would have just given up. Imagine being 56 and waking up one day and you don't have a place to live, a job, a car, and you have lost everything. Everything! It was hard but we made it and that is all that counts. I knew I was going to get a check, but how do you spend a check? And the post office was closed along with the bank. The casino gave us our tip money so I had $400. I called the bus station, they wouldn’t take the ferrets, I called the airline and the kids needed shots and it would be $200 per kid, the train wouldn’t even hear of transporting me with the ferrets.”
© Courtesy Cheryl Clark
From left to right are ferrets Jewel, Honey Baby and Bandit; three of those who survived Hurricane Katrina with Cheryl Clark.
Rebuilding A Life Together
Thanks to Southern hospitality, Clark finally got a ride out of the area and checked into a hotel in Vicksburg on September 8. She had to sneak in her ferrets. Once there, the ferrets were finally freed from their cage and played in the air conditioning they had long missed. It was their unbreakable spirit and love that got Clark through those difficult days. Finally she received her FEMA check, which allowed her to buy a car and leave Vicksburg. It had no spare tire and no AC, but, by gosh, they were on the road.
Bobbi McCanse from the KC Ferret Hotline in Missouri was quick to give aid to Clark at the time.
"I sent her a bit of cash, that she later paid back, and when she arrived in Kansas City, we kept her ferrets while she worked on finding a place to live and a job,” McCanse said.
Clark barely endured the separation. "I was such a frequent visitor to the shelter, Bobbi gave me a key, bless her heart,” Clark said. "The kids stayed with Bobbi with very frequent visits from a mom who was missing them really bad. The day I got the key to our apartment I called and said I was picking up the kids. Bobbi said, ‘You can do it tomorrow’ and I said, ‘No way.’ We all slept on the floor that night and for several nights after that.”
McCanse has deep respect for the decisions Clark made and said, "Cheryl is a dear person, wholly devoted to her ferrets. She has been through a lot, a survivor who was determined not to survive without her ferrets.”
Changes To Disaster Response
Undoubtedly, the greatest tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was the countless loss of life, but not just human life. The number of animal companions left behind to fight for their lives is unfathomable. You might say the lucky ones drowned in the darkness of night — because what came with the break of day was desperation, suffering, the terror of being alone and, ultimately for some, a slow death. The heartbreak of it all is that it was completely preventable.
In recognition of problems that arose in response to Hurricane Katrina, the federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) act was passed in 2006. This federal law addresses the needs of people with pets and service animals during major disasters and emergencies.
Other dramatic changes have come about as well. Renee Downs is a Red Cross member and the chairperson of F.E.R.R.E.T. (Ferret Emergency Response, Rescue & Evacuation Team). She says F.E.R.R.E.T. was formed by the International Ferret Congress as a direct response to Hurricane Katrina and the specific need at that time. She is happy to say that she has seen good results due to the PETS law. In 2008, she worked with Noah’s Wish in Shreveport during Hurricane Gustav. Many other assistance groups were on site as well.
"I was ultimately asked by the Red Cross to manage a shelter in Bossier and was able to talk to people who had evacuated with their pets,” Downs said. "There were huge trucks that transported people and the reunions were always joyful. It was great!”
Despite the progress, more is needed. Downs says people still need to also take more responsibility during such emergencies, just as Clark did. The responsibility to be prepared does not just fall upon our government but on ourselves. People must be prepared.
"Make a plan, get an emergency kit, be informed!” Downs said. "Take a local disaster preparedness course and do NOT expect help for at least 72 hours. It takes time to get help to an area. It is not possible to predict everything that might happen.”
Remembering The Good
Since her ordeal, the memories continue to haunt Clark at times. She gives a small but telling example, "When I finally got into an apartment I would reach for something I knew I had but it wasn't there.” However her ferrets were always there to snap her back to the reality of what is important. "The kids lost all their toys and bedding and never once complained, they just engaged me in play and we are happy. They taught me that love is what counts and not possessions.”
Today, Clark suffers from lung damage and other health issues that disable her due to the conditions she lived in during the storm aftermath. But she is happy. She lives simply, is grateful for the little things in life, and recalls the precious memories of the six brave little furry souls who helped her survive the deadliest of times.
When asked what she hopes for the future, Clark replied, "I would wish for a world where people did not abandon a [pet] companion. If I can do it and get them to safety other people can, too. They make me laugh then in the end they make me cry, but they leave such beautiful memories.” And Jewel, Bandit, Farah, Digger, Buzz and Honey Baby will always be remembered.
Like this article? Please share it, and check out:
Disaster Safety For Ferrets And You
First Aid For Ferrets
Make A Small Pet Disaster Kit
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