Dogs in hotel and goats in the aviary: Haines’ pets get care during disaster

Veterinarian Michelle Oakley hugs Nelson, a Jack Russell Terrier, on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, in Haines, Alaska. Oakley and a local doctor performed emergency abdominal surgery on Nelson, who swallowed a bone after his owners evacuated during flooding and landslides. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Mandy Reigle and Cori Stennett’s house was okay after mudslides tore through their neighborhood. But the debris flows covered the road, cutting them off from town for three days. That’s when they were finally able to evacuate with their terrier, Nelson.

“And the truth is, is that Thursday night, we were busy getting packed up. And we just didn’t have a close of an eye on him. And he was very occupied. He was loving his bone,” Stennett said. “And that’s what happened.”

The next morning, they moved into relative safety with some friends in the Haines townsite.

But by evening, Nelson was writhing in pain. They didn’t know it at the time, but a sharp piece of bone was working its way through his stomach and intestines. They called Haines’ only working veterinarian, Dr. Michelle Oakley, who is also a celebrity: She spends part of the year traveling to film her TV show “Yukon Vet.”

Within hours, Dr. Oakley gathered enough resources for emergency surgery.

First, she took a fluid sample from Nelson’s stomach. It was full of blood.

“And at that point, I think we all just kind of looked at each other and thought he was already bleeding out from the inside,” Stennett said. “That’s that moment where, you know, I mean, you don’t really care how dirty that floor is — you want to lay on the floor and cuddle them while they’re still here.”

Nelson wasn’t the only pet who needed attention. Dr. Oakley set up a makeshift clinic in the town’s rescue kennel. In the midst of the disaster, she was fielding around 20 calls and visits a day.

There was a case of inappropriate urination — “So, it’s peeing all over the place,” she said.

“We’ve got a bite wound, and that’s the third bite wound for today,” she said.

There was a dog so anxious and shaky it couldn’t eat without vomiting.

“It’s kind of the whole gamut — it might just be anxiety, which is which is still something, and nothing to ignore — to the more serious, like, you know, big abscesses, bite wounds, things like that that can really make an animal pretty sick.”

Oakley explained this is normal under the circumstances. Pet owners are distracted, animals are in new environments and everyone is under stress.

Cats went to friend’s homes. Dogs ended up in hotel rooms. Parrots ended up in hotel rooms. And a pair of pygmy goats found themselves in a vacant aviary.

After Payton and Polymer’s owners had to evacuate their home under Mount Ripinski, the Haines Bald Eagle Foundation housed the pair in empty barn space intended for birds on a farm near the townsite. Sidney Campbell, the Foundation’s raptor manager, is in charge of their care.

“I have, like, remarkably little information about these goats,” she said. “It was just — in the frenzy of the evacuations, people were looking for places to put them, and we very suddenly had two goats to take care of.”

She drives up to the farm twice a day to refresh their food and water.

“Animal care doesn’t seem like it would be a super applicable skill in a setting like this, you know. Everybody’s doing their best to help out and this is my skill. This is this is the thing I know. So this is what I can do to help,” she said.

Two rescued goats play in pens that the American Bald Eagle Foundation and Live Raptor Center owns on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 in Haines, Alaska. The raptor center volunteered space for animals that needed a place to go after widespread flooding, landslides and evacuations in town. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

At his follow-up appointment, Nelson the terrier was doing well. His weight was stable, and Dr. Oakley said bruising from surgery is already improving. Stennett said she’s grateful not to lose anything else.

“I don’t think we even knew how much he meant until we were here on the floor with him on Friday night, thinking that we were saying bye, and crying. Just the thought of losing him,” she said. “That just plunged us into something we weren’t expecting, on top of what already had happened that we weren’t expecting to the community. And we love him. I mean, we love him so much.”

Nelson walks back to the truck, but he needs a lift to get inside. They’re headed back to their friends’ home — to pack. Since they were in a part of town that had just been warned to prepare for another evacuation, they planned to check into a hotel just in case.