September 09. 2004 12:00AM

Community helps rescue cats, dogs

Scott Parrott

Times-News Staff Writer

scott.parrott @ hendersonvillenews . com

Volunteers unload a boat full of animals rescued from a flooded All Creatures Great and Small on Wednesday. (PATRICK SULLIVAN/TIMES-NEWS)

They were trapped.

The first rain seeped into All Creatures Great and Small late Tuesday afternoon, as remnants of Hurricane Frances struck Hendersonville. But water soon surrounded the no-kill animal shelter on Seventh Avenue, pouring through the front door, flooding the kennels.

Then the two creeks that flank the animal shelter spread above the banks. By Wednesday morning, more than 500 dogs and cats were stranded, some atop a dry hillside behind the shelter, others inside, above the floodwaters.

Frantic shelter volunteers stood helpless Wednesday morning, separated from the animals by waters that rose above mailboxes and drowned fire hydrants.

When the day ended, it would take scores of volunteers, sheriff's deputies and rescue workers to save most of the animals. Some wouldn't make it.

"The world ended last night," said Mary Dunn, a shelter volunteer.

Higher ground

The story started at 9 a.m., about four hours after rising floodwaters forced shelter workers to evacuate.

After leading hundreds of dogs to the dry hillside, and placing cats in the highest spots inside the shelter, the workers reluctantly left after repeated urges from rescue personnel, taking as many animals as they could.

Val, the German shepherd, stood stranded at 9 a.m.

She crossed the hood of a small, partially submerged Chevy. She pawed the water below. She howled. Across Seventh Avenue, which resembled a muddy river, shelter President Kim Kappler was on the verge of tears.

"Hold on Val," she said. "Everybody we could get out, we got out."

By 10:30 a.m., volunteers had phoned the police, the fire department, the local radio station and the local television station. They needed help. They needed canoes, motor boats, anything to get them across the flooded land and to the stranded dogs and cats.

But rescue boats were tied up elsewhere, helping motorists stranded throughout the county along flooded roads.

The animals would have to wait. But the waiting became too much.

"You can't just stand here, knowing what's going on over there," Dunn said, fighting tears.

Kappler walked into the water. It rose above her ankles, then her knees, then her waist. Other volunteers, standing on dry land, called for her to return.

"I can't wait much longer," she said. "I have to go over there."

Help arrives

At 10:45 a.m., they collected leashes. The Henderson County animal shelter arrived, two truckloads full of pet carriers. More volunteers arrived, plus people who heard about the drama on the radio.

Sgt. Randy Stepp, and Kevin King, K-9 officers with the Henderson County Sheriff's Department, launched a small motorboat. Slowly, they floated past the waiting volunteers, and out of sight toward the flooded shelter.

Kappler followed, walking into the water. "Let me come with you," she called.

Turned away, Kappler said, "They don't know them."

After nearly half an hour, the boat reappeared. Five dogs rode shotgun, tongues flapping.

Volunteers popped open a bag of Sonny's Pride dog food, and poured small piles on the ground. Katie Orr, a 12-year-old shelter volunteer, towel-dried Happy, a terrier mix.

But some 500 other animals remained stranded, and Stepp and King had a problem, a big one. The electricity remained on inside the shelter. They could be electrocuted.

At 11:30 a.m., back at the shelter, Stepp left the boat. He navigated the flooded building, until he found several electrical boxes.

Outside, Val tried to swim the waters. She kicked her front feet, and as she sank, she turned back, returning to the car hood.

By noon, the electricity was turned off and King and Stepp returned again and again to the shelter, bringing out five more dogs each time.

"I thought we were going to sink," King said. "They were thinking, 'We don't care who you are, how you got here, but we're coming with you.'"

Stepp suffered an injury in the rescue, though, after one of the smaller evacuees bit him on the hand.

Val is saved

At 1:15 p.m., volunteers canoed across the waters toward Val, stranded for hours on the hood of the Chevy.

Within minutes, she emerged on dry land. She shook the water from her coat and walked among the volunteers, receiving pats on the head.

Trading the motorboat for an old, step-up pickup truck, Stepp drove through the receding waters at 3 p.m. He returned minutes later with another 10 dogs in the bed.

Hopping back into the cab, Stepp said another 150 animals remained behind. He shifted into gear and cruised back into the floodwaters.

As nighttime approached at 6:45 p.m., rescue personnel were forced to weigh the risks against carrying all the animals away from the shelter.

Preparing for darkness, they parked a rescue truck equipped with towering lights near the water.

They planned to feed and water the animals that they would be unable to retrieve. They wanted to ensure that the animals would be safe overnight, away from the water.

The other dogs and cats, meanwhile, were taken to an old state prison off Stoney Mountain Road, and to other animal shelters and kennels that volunteered their space.

"What was it Gandhi said?" asked Henderson County Sheriff George H. Erwin Jr. "You can judge the nature of a community by how well it treats its animals."