When military police officer Specialist Stefanie Demanincor and American Red Cross volunteer Jessica Childs deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands to assist human victims of Hurricane Maria, both life-long dog lovers knew they’d come across some animal victims, as well. What they didn’t know then was how their personal lives would be forever affected by the animals they met in the wake of this devastating storm.
Stefanie and Ava
After deploying in late September, Stefanie was in Frederiksted, St. Croix, for a month assisting the Virgin Islands Police Department in providing curfew security to the island’s residents.
“The animals are everywhere,” said Stefanie upon witnessing the damage. “It’s sad.”
During one morning roll call at the police station just before her 12-hour shift, Stefanie and her colleagues noticed that a storefront next door was missing its roof, and more than a dozen dogs were on the upper floor of the building, seemingly alone.
As the officers investigated, they found that no one appeared to be caring for the dogs, who were living in 95-degree heat and humidity. One dog in particular, a young brown-and-white pit bull-mix whom Stefanie named Ava, was less fearful than the rest. She wandered down from the second story, approached the officers and begged for food. Stefanie offered the dog her leftover lunch and fresh water.
Stefanie then contacted the ASPCA. We had been working in St. Croix at the request of the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture since September 28, and we had established an emergency shelter on the grounds of the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center (SCAWC), the island’s only open-door shelter. The two consecutive Category 5 hurricanes ripped apart the SCAWC, and repeated looting left the organization with no computers, appliances, medications or supplies. The ASPCA’s presence proved to be invaluable to the shelter, and to Stefanie.
After Stefanie contacted us, Joel Lopez, Director of Planning and Field Operations for the ASPCA’s Field Investigations and Response team (FIR), and Lauren Cowell, Planning Manager, rescued Ava. While her companions remained fearful, Ava’s independence led to her wandering around more than the other dogs—something that made Stefanie worry for her more. According to Joel, Ava was “thin and nervous, and lying on the side of the road,” when they found her. Afraid for her safety, Joel and Lauren took the young dog to the ASPCA’s emergency shelter first, and soon rescued the other dogs, whose owner had surrendered them.
Jessica and Croix
Jessica, who has done refugee work around the world, spent three weeks leading the Virgin Islands Red Cross’ reunification efforts in St. Thomas and St. Croix, helping displaced residents get in contact with their families in the U.S.
“The poverty is devastating, and the residents have little to no resources,” says Jessica. “And there were many wounded and displaced animals.”
Jessica also spotted a dog in distress during her time on St. Croix. Stranded in an area that had been leveled by the storm sat a small puppy waiting to be rescued. Jessica, too, contacted the ASPCA, and Joel tracked down the puppy’s guardian, who reported that the pup was part of a litter of six—three of whom had sadly died in the storm. The guardian then surrendered the remaining pups to our care. Of the three, “Croix,” named by Jessica, was in the worst shape, and suffering from a serious skin condition.
“She barely tolerated touching, and her belly was distended from parasites and malnourishment,” says Jessica. “She broke my heart.”
Meeting their Matches: A Happy Ending for All
While Ava and Croix received the care they needed at the ASPCA shelter, both Stefanie and Jessica visited when their schedules allowed. It wasn’t long before both women decided to adopt the homeless dogs and devised transport plans to their respective homes in Rochester, New York, and Boston, Massachusetts.
By word of mouth, Stefanie heard about Island Dog Rescue (IDR), a non-profit organization that saves neglected and abandoned animals in the Virgin Islands and finds them placement on the mainland. Ava was in a group of a dozen dogs flown off the island to St. Petersburg, Florida, and then to Virginia Beach, Virginia, where Sali Gear, Co-Founder of IDR, fostered her until weather permitted a third flight to State College, Pennsylvania, where Stefanie met Ava and drove her new family member the final leg to Rochester.
“Ava was the first dog to be officially adopted and leave our shelter,” says Joel. “It was a pivotal moment.”
Jessica, in the meantime, re-routed her departing flight, instead taking a plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she and Croix—along with a second puppy she was transporting—flew non-stop to New York and then drove to Massachusetts.
“The big joke is that I don’t live a lifestyle for a puppy—my days are long,” says Jessica, a project manager for a data software company. “But I was a goner after I met Croix. Everyone knows I’m a bleeding heart.”
Both dogs have settled nicely into their new homes away from the island, and both have new playmates: Ozzie, a two-year-old Catahoula Leopard Dog-mix, has proven to be a perfect match for Ava; and Mundo, a Cocker Spaniel owned by Jessica’s work-from-home neighbor, is helping socialize the small, six-pound Croix. With her fur filling in nicely, Croix even has her own Instagram account at @croixtotherescue!
Both women say they will never forget their deployments.
“Being able to do humanitarian work that got thrown into the mix with police work was great,” says Stefanie, who enlisted with the New York National Guard in March 2015 and works full time in sales support while on call as part of the army reserve.
“It was a big deal for us to be able to have the opportunity to do something of this magnitude,” she adds. “Adopting Ava was the icing on the cake.”