After Floods, Brazil Has a Surge in Homeless Pets

When the two puppies arrived at a makeshift shelter in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, their rail-thin legs buckled from exhaustion. They had treaded water for hours, fighting to survive as floods submerged the city, turning streets into rivers.

“We tried to get them to walk, but they couldn’t,” said Dr. Daniel Guimarães Gerardi, a veterinarian volunteering at the shelter. “Your heart aches at times like these, for these poor animals suffering.”

Two days after being rescued, the 6-month-old mutts — one tiger-striped, the other jet black — mostly dozed on donated blankets amid chew toys, still drained from their ordeal. When awake, they wobbled around the shelter on unsteady legs, tails wagging and ears pinned back tightly.

They wore no name tags, and since they were found on May 21 nobody had come looking for them. “We hope that, if they have caregivers, they will be found,” Dr. Guimarães said. If not, he added, the aim will be to find them a good, safe home.

More than a month after catastrophic floods battered southern Brazil, its worst disaster in recent history, the region is still reeling. The floods submerged entire towns, destroyed bridges, shuttered an international airport and displaced nearly 600,000 people across the state of Rio Grande do Sul. At least 169 people were killed, and 56 are still missing.

Amid the turmoil, thousands of animals were separated from their owners and trapped by the floods. Dramatic scenes of dogs struggling to save themselves by climbing onto the roofs of inundated houses and firefighters rescuing stranded animals, including a horse called Caramelo, captured headlines around the world. (Caramelo was eventually reunited with its owner).

Even as floodwaters recede, tens of thousands of people remain in temporary shelters, unable to return to their destroyed or damaged homes. And more than 12,500 domestic animals have been rescued since the beginning of the crisis, according to state authorities.

Many of these animals don’t have owners, said Fabiana de Araújo Ribeiro, who manages Porto Alegre’s animal welfare office.

Even when they do, “they don’t have anywhere to go back to” because their homes have been ruined, Ms. Ribeiro said.

And with water levels covering street signs and house numbers, rescue crews have struggled to record with any precision where pets were rescued or whom they might belong to.

Surges of homeless animals are common after natural disasters around the world, as owners are killed, separated from their pets or forced into temporary shelters that do not allow animals.

Yet returning displaced animals is more complex in countries like Brazil than in the United States, where best practices often include methodically registering where animals are found and setting up centralized hotlines to help owners find pets, said Joaquin de la Torre Ponce, Latin America director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a nonprofit based in Washington.

It is also more common in the United States than in many parts of Latin America for owners to implant tracking chips in their pets, making it easier to reunite, animal welfare advocates said.

And strays are more prevalent in Latin America, where animals are often fed and cared for by an entire block, Mr. Ponce said.

“These community dogs and cats don’t have one specific owner,” he said. “So nobody is going to come looking for them in a scenario like this.”

Under the leaky roof of an abandoned warehouse in Canoas, a city neighboring Port Alegre, some 800 rescued dogs shuffled, whimpered and barked in makeshift kennels built out of wooden pallets.

The space had been turned into an impromptu shelter by volunteers, who were working in shifts to register, feed, medicate and care for the animals. Few animals had names, but each crate bore a number, scribbled on cardboard by shelter workers.

Many had been saved by rescue crews, after spending days or even weeks stranded on roofs, in trees and in flooded homes. Some arrived injured or sick, and most were badly malnourished.

A few, like Gigante, an older Labrador wearing a pink shirt stamped with red hearts, had been dropped off by owners who were barred from taking their pets to the temporary shelters they now called home.

In one corner, a muscular white-and-brown mutt pulled at a chain leash, baring sharp teeth. He had mostly recovered from a gash to his snout, volunteers said, but he had been anxious since the floods inundated his home and sent his owner to a hospital.

Deeper in the warehouse, a subdued Rottweiler lay curled in the back corner of his kennel, his head resting on his paws. Firefighters had found him swimming in the streets of Canoas two weeks earlier, trembling and agitated.

In recent days, another bout of heavy rain set off a commotion at the shelter. When the downpour began, the dogs tried to clamber onto the roofs of their kennels. “They get nervous when they see the water,” Celso Luis Vieira, 74, a volunteer, said. “They think the place is about to flood.”

On a recent weekday morning, Sérgio Hoff was scouring the warehouse for his missing pets. When he evacuated from his home in Canoas with his wife and 9-year-old daughter in early May, the family had to leave behind their five dogs and three cats.

“My wife was in a panic; she didn’t want to leave them,” Mr. Hoff, 39, a banker, said. “But we just couldn’t take them with us. It was chaos.”

The family let the animals loose in their yard, hoping they would climb to higher ground if the waters rose. They never imagined the floodwaters would submerge their entire house.

Mr. Hoff eventually found two of his dogs in a shelter on the other side of Canoas, which made him hopeful that the others may have survived, too. But, after weeks of searching other animal shelters and scouring social media pages, he still hadn’t found the rest of the pets.

“Frustration is the only word that describes this,” he said after another unsuccessful shelter visit. “But we’re not going to give up.”

Back at the Porto Alegre shelter, a 2-year-old black mutt named Ticolé had better luck.

Frightened by the rush of water invading his neighborhood, the dog had broken loose from his home and escaped, just as his owners were preparing to flee. After two weeks, his owner, Jorge Caldeira Santos, finally tracked him down.

“I found him,” he said, as he led Ticolé out of the shelter.

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