After the wreckage and devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, a short, stout man in his 50s was desperate for any aid for his beloved companion — his dog.
In a last attempt to help his starving pet Bubba, a 6-month-old puppy, the man placed the dog's shelter in the road with a sign bearing a simple plea: "INT. HUMANE SOCIETY PLEASE HELP ME!" It was signed, "Bubba."
The man had simply heard of the Humane Society International. He only hoped it actually existed.
Not long after, Rey del Napoles, a resident of Manila and licensed veterinarian, received a photo of the sign on the makeshift shelter.
Del Napoles, program manager of the Humane Society International in the Philippines, went in search of Bubba.
And when del Napoles found the man and his dog, the two men wept.
History of helping
Del Napoles is part of the Humane Society International team of 10 veterinarians that is providing aid to companion animals, like dogs and cats, in the aftermath of the typhoon.
"We can't respond (to every disaster) but we do have particular locations where we are active in any kind of response that's needed, the Philippines being one of them," said Washington-based Kelly O’Meara, director of companion animals and engagement for Humane Society International. India also has a very strong response force.
The Humane Society International has had an ongoing program in the Philippines for nearly five years. Based in the Philippines city of Cebu, the nonprofit group has trained hundreds of veterinarians in the country over the past four years.
"It made our response very effective and rapid in comparison with other (disasters) we've been involved with," O'Meara said.
Most of the veterinarians in the Philippines network are trained government veterinarians, and many outside of the core response team are on call if necessary.
Del Napoles has been in Tacloban, ground zero of the typhoon, since Nov. 13 as part of the team of veterinarians for the Humane Society International that mobilized after the storm. Since then, he and his team have made it their priority to reunite displaced animals with their families.
Reuniting man's best friends
Initially upon entering the city, del Napoles and his team's primary goal was to distribute food, medication like antibiotics and vitamins and to create shelters for animals.
Many families who evacuated Tacloban left hurriedly and were forced to leave their pets behind. Some have started to look for them.
After a fortuitous call from a family asking for help to locate their pet just days ago, del Napoles said he started the unification program through efforts on Facebook and on the ground. So far, they have evacuated eight dogs and reunited five of them with their families. The other three will stay with del Napoles and his team until they have received adequate medical attention.
Although the numbers of animals being located are modest, the task is a huge feat. Because the storm knocked down almost every home in Tacloban, del Napoles doesn't have a firm count of how many animals are now homeless. He estimates the number at 5,000.
A shelter has been established in Cebu for animals to be held until they are reunited with their owners.
In addition to the Facebook page, the Humane Society International has established a hotline for families to call to request the rescue of their animals. So far, more than 30 requests have been made.
Surveying the disaster zone
Though he had worked in many disaster response situations before, when he arrived in Tacloban, it was the first time he couldn't put what he was seeing into words.
"It was a disaster beyond description," del Napoles said.
The streets were lined with decaying bodies of the storm's victims, five days after Haiyan had torn through the city of more than 218,000.
"The entire city smelled like decaying bodies. Going around to do the assessment was really difficult, especially when you have decaying bodies around you," del Napoles said.
Many of the living appeared as if they were the walking dead. "They were walking the streets aimlessly," he said. "You could just spell out hopelessness in their faces."
Despite the horrific conditions, del Napoles and his team's preliminary assessment identified the areas of greatest need.
According to O'Meara, the rescue efforts and current hotline make up one component of the three-fold plan of action.
Companion animals are also in great need of immediate care for injuries suffered in the storm.
To offset the need, two vehicles have been placed on the island of Leyte to help workers travel to needy animals and serve as stationary clinics for the animals.
Finally, feeding stations were strategically placed throughout Tacloban and the rest of the island to give displaced animals sustenance.
"The dogs looked so hungry and thirsty," del Napoles said. "They subsisted on what they could scavenge. We immediately started feeding them.”
A delicate duty
One of the issues with the Humane Society International response is the delicate balance of addressing animal needs in the midst of human needs.
Because of the established network of Humane Society International responders, they were on the ground in less than a week.
"When humanitarian aid is prolonged in getting there, it makes it difficult to be an animal organization and find your way in there without being able to help people," O'Meara said.
Because human aid was delayed because of the magnitude of the devastation, Humane Society International distributed water and other supplies to survivors they met.
Del Napoles and his team had only brought with them dog and cat food and medical supplies for animals.
Yet the people of Tacloban were grateful for the Humane Society International's efforts, O'Meara said.
"They were extremely appreciative of our willingness to be in the disaster zone to help animals directly with veterinary care and food," she said. "It's a helpless feeling to know there is nothing you can do for your animals."
For del Napoles, the ability to serve is the most rewarding.
"Making these people believe that there is somebody out there who is looking after the needs of the animals is more than enough," he said. "When we came in, many people had not received human relief. They had not received food. And they did not mind us."
Instead, del Napoles said, they were grateful for the attention being directed to their loved ones.
Sometimes, the sweetest victory can be just to reunite a man and his dog.
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