It's rare to find uplifting stories about hurricanes, but here's one: A Virginia woman named Sali Gear rescued pets stranded on the Virgin Islands after Irma wreaked havoc in the Caribbean earlier in the month. Because she chartered a private jet, over 300 pets have been safely airlifted away from the hurricane-stricken U.S. territory. Gear, founder of Island Dog Rescue, coordinated with pet shelters on the islands before Irma hit, and they were successfully transported to her Virginia farm on Tuesday evening.
According to the Virginian-Pilot, Gear had initially planned to fly 20 animals to the continental United States from the islands every day; this was in the aftermath of Irma, which battered the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. Then, as Hurricane Maria grew in intensity just days after Irma dissipated and threatened to clobber the Virgin Islands yet again, Gear realized she needed to expedite her schedule.
With just two days before Maria's expected landfall on the islands, Gear contracted a private jet to fly from Miami to rescue the imperiled pets and take them back to her Virginia farm. It came at a hefty price: $112,000 for the flight itself, plus $5,000 for the pet carriers, according to the Virginian-Pilot. But with the help of donors, Gear was able to cover the price of the flight, and it landed in the U.S. Virgin Islands just in the nick of time.
"We did it because there was nobody else to do it, and the government didn't have a way to do it," Gear told Virginia TV station WAVY. She said that that her crowdfunding effort began simply as "two people having Island Dog Rescue on social media creating a swell of support," and that "people have moved heaven and earth to make this happen.”
Gear says that she and her team were able to completely clear out the animal shelters on the islands, which were full of pets who'd been abandoned in the chaos of Irma. Those 300-plus animals landed safely in Virginia on Tuesday evening; each of them had a note taped to their kennels that read, "I survived Hurricane Irma. I am still nervous. Please be cautious with me.”
The pets were most likely experiencing some degree of trauma when they arrived: They'd been in cages since the storm hit, and many had lost their family members in the hurricane. Thankfully, volunteers who'd heard of the campaign on social media showed up to Gear's farm and helped her reintegrate the animals after their departure from the islands.
“I honestly — I was about to start crying,” volunteer Tinsley Sarrett, who helped take the dogs from the airport to the farm, told WAVY. "It’s so heartwarming seeing that our community is just coming together for this great cause, and wanting to help these dogs. They just need a home." Sarrett added that she'd like to adopt one of the dogs in question.
According to WAVY, Gear grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but lost everything when Hurricane Hugo hit the territory in 1989. Since then, she founded Island Dog Rescue, which as the name implies is focused on rescuing animals from the Virgin Islands.
Gear wasn't the only one to launch a post-Irma rescue effort for four-legged friends in the Caribbean. Earlier in the week, the Miami-based cruise line Royal Caribbean International rerouted one of its ships to the U.S. Virgin Islands and the island of St. Martin in order rescue 304 people left behind in the storm — and 16 pets that belonged to them.
According to Gear, the animals she helped rescue have been faring well since leaving the storm-battered islands.
"They all seem happy,” she told the Virginian-Pilot. “Island dogs are like that.”