For animals stranded by flood or fire, a network of strangers to the rescue

Why We Wrote This

After disaster, good deeds inspire more of them: From Nebraska floods to California fires, horse owners, ranchers, and farmers pitch in to save animals and keep the rescues fed.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
After catastrophic flooding in their state in March, Bill and Stephanie Waters of Hoover, Nebraska, unload alfalfa cubes, hay, and food pellets from Texas. The volunteers have turned their own farm into a distribution point for such donations.

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Last month as Bill Waters jumped into a frigid Nebraska flood to save a pony that was not his, he became another link in a chain of volunteer animal rescuers. Just as they did for people, Nebraskans banded together to save livestock and pets after record-breaking floods.

Today, the Waters farm is a distribution point for feed and supplies, because one California horse owner – who was helped by Nebraskans during the California wildfires – wanted a place to donate some hay. Donations have also come from Wyoming and Texas and elsewhere.

In Dallas, Mr. Waters met another volunteer, Kathy Williams. For Hurricane Harvey in 2017 she organized delivery of aid to a flooded Houston. And last summer, after Jill Pierre and Justin Jones helped a couple with a horse trailer change a tire in California, they started a Facebook page called Cowboy 911. In November, the ad hoc group gathered people to rescue an estimated 5,000 animals from areas affected by the destructive Camp fire. “I really think that God was calling us to start this,” says Mr. Jones. “I think he did it more for me than for the people we’ve helped.”

In Nebraska, where cows outnumber residents 4 to 1, it didn’t take long after the floods hit last month for a huge animal rescue to take shape.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture began aerial surveillance to locate stranded and dead cattle. The state’s Army National Guard pitched in with a transport helicopter to drop bales of hay to straying cows.

And just as they did for human rescues, Nebraskans banded together to save livestock and pets. In Gretna some 40 people reportedly pitched in to save the world’s largest herd of rare San Clemente Island goats – some 250 of them – from rising waters.

For Bill and Stephanie Waters in Hooper it was horses. The couple already had taken four horses from the local fairgrounds, which was in danger of flooding, when the call came that a horse and a pony were stranded nearby and without food for three days. With the help of an acquaintance, Ryan Jacobi, Mr. Waters got through flooded roads to reach the horses. The palomino, named Sonny, followed Mr. Jacobi’s horse, but the pony strayed in swollen waters and its head went under.

Mr. Jacobi managed to rope the pony and Mr. Waters, a retired Army paratrooper, pulled it to safety. The Waterses took the animals to their farm and began the long slow process of recovery. (They can’t be warmed up too fast or fed too much at first, Ms. Waters says.)

Mr. Waters remembers when the owner, a single mother, arrived with her daughter to visit the animals they’d been forced to abandon when floodwaters threatened their home. “She hugged me,” he recalls of the little girl. “She saw her Mom relax and she relaxed.”

With the waters receding, just Sonny and the pony, Cookie, remained. The Waters thought they had done their good deeds. In fact, it was just the beginning.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Waterses on April 2 with Sonny (l.) and Cookie, animals they helped rescue from rising floodwaters in March, in Hooper, Nebraska. Bill jumped in frigid water to help Cookie get to dry land. Many parts of the state flooded after heavy rains hit frozen, saturated ground.

‘A life changing moment’

A horse owner in California, who had gotten help from Nebraskans and others when his horses had been threatened by California wildfires, wanted a place to deliver bales of hay and other food. Soon, the Waters home became a donation distribution point as horse owners from Texas and Wyoming and elsewhere began to arrive with trailer-loads of feed and other supplies like wheelbarrows, fence posts, and halters and lead ropes – the kinds of things necessary for flooded-out horse owners to get back on their feet.

Mr. Waters himself drove to Texas, where he met Kathy Williams, owner of a fine jewelry store in Dallas and volunteer dispatcher and emergency supply organizer for the Arabian Horsemens Distress Fund (AHDF). Formed in 2004 to help individuals, the group got into emergency response in a big way with Hurricane Harvey, which inundated Houston in 2017. “That was a life-changing moment,” says Ms. Williams.  

Knowing the hurricane was coming, Ms. Williams had organized volunteer farms to take the horses. But after the storm made landfall on Aug. 25, she waited and waited and no horses came. She realized the horses weren’t coming because the owners couldn’t get out. Worse, semitrailer trucks, which might have brought in feed and supplies, couldn’t get in because Houston was terribly short of gas and the truck drivers were prohibited from carrying gasoline.

But horse owners’ trailers, which faced no such restriction, could get in and out. “We were it,” recalls Ms. Williams. The group started receiving donations from around the country, which she used to buy supplies. She then found volunteers to truck them to horse owners in the Houston area. They delivered three loads a day – nearly 50 trailer-loads in all – until the situation began to stabilize. “It’s very rewarding,” she says. “And it’s very faith-based in a lot of ways because you’ve got to trust that [the aid] will get there. And it does.”

Cowboy 911

For Jill Pierre and Justin Jones, the eureka moment came last July when, on the way back from Costco in Northern California, they drove past an older couple with a horse trailer and a blown-out tire. They turned around and asked if they could help. The couple, from out of town, didn’t have the tools to fix the tire and AAA said it would take two hours to reach them – not a good thing for the horses in the trailer with temperatures hovering around 110 degrees.

Mr. Jones fixed the tire and the couple were on their way. On the way back home, he and Ms. Pierre talked about starting a Facebook page where horse owners could be made aware of others in need. Cowboy 911 was born.

Cowboy 911’s first big test came with the Carr fire later that same month in California’s nearby Shasta and Trinity counties. With Ms. Pierre logging the appeals for help from her restaurant, Mr. Jones put out a call for people with trailers to meet at a store in Happy Valley. (It’s such a remote area, everyone knew the store). Within an hour, he says, volunteers with some 150 trailers showed up. “We got hundreds and hundreds of animals out,” says Ms. Pierre, not just farm animals but pets as well.

When the Camp wildfire, California’s most destructive, hit in November, Cowboy 911 was initially shut out by emergency agencies, until local politicians intervened. Three days later, the group had volunteers with 500 trucks and trailers from all over the state arrive to help, many sleeping in their trucks at night. “We pulled 5,000 animals out with our people,” Ms. Pierre estimates.

“I really think that God was calling us to start this,” says Mr. Jones. “I think he did it more for me than for the people we’ve helped. I was at a point where I was losing faith in humanity.”

“It’s interesting to me how a little makes a difference in situations like this,” says Mary Trowbridge, founder and president of AHDF. There are fewer than 5,000 owners of Arabian horses in the United States, but they come from all walks of life. She receives donations of $5 and $5,000 when members hear of a disaster that affects horse owners. “There’s a level playing field that I don’t think exists in other [equine] sports.”

Back in Hooper, Mr. Waters is hauling donated hay from the Nebraska-Wyoming line. And Ms. Waters still shakes her head at how they have suddenly become a part of a nationwide network of volunteer horse owners. “We’ll do this as long as there’s a need,” she says.

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