In the eight months since a series of severe storms battered the state, much of the recovery has been focused on people repairing their homes and putting their lives back together. But the tornados also displaced and injured hundreds of wild animals, and one organization took steps to help those animals even after it was hit by a storm itself.
Rondi Large is the founder and executive director of Wildcare, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Noble. On a recent weekday afternoon, she gave a tour of the seven-acre property, pointing out cages still filled with injured animals from May’s tornadoes.
“The hawks and owls with broken wings, we saw a lot of that during the tornadoes 'cause animals were injured, when they have pins in their wings and slowly recovering and can't be in crates anymore because they're getting too active, we move them into these enclosures and it's much more like being outside,” Large explained.
She and her team received over 800 animals including 183 cottontail rabbits, 52 opossums and 4 barn owls.
But just as they were getting up and running, 10 days after the Moore tornado, a hail storm hit Wildcare’s facility and caused power outages. The damage was substantial, and Large’s team had to adjust to working in a disaster zone itself.
“This was the one time that we were hit and it just seems like Mother Nature shouldn't have done that to us, but that's not the way storms go,” she said.
So Large took the unusual step of asking the International Fund for Animal Welfare to send assistance. Shannon Walajtys is the Manager for Disaster Response and Risk Reduction at IFAW. She says wildlife rehab facilities in the U.S. have always declined support in the past.
“When we reach out to them, they are the first people to say, ‘Please go help someone else. We are doing ok,’” Walajtys said.
But this time was different. Large says there were so many animals impacted that she needed all the help she could get.
“The little animals and the babies, they can't go anywhere,” Large said. “The little ground-dwellers, you can't tell me that an armadillo can outrun a tornado or knows what to do. The bigger animals don't have much more of a chance either with something as large as that. So they're just devastated, wiped out, killed, injured, and then there's no one looking for them,” she said.
Michael Bergin with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation says it's impossible to know exactly how many animals were killed or injured during the May storms. But he thinks many species have adapted and developed defense mechanisms to protect themselves from the sorts of severe weather that occur in this part of the country.
“Oklahoma's had tornadoes for hundreds of years, and our wildlife, more or less, has learned to live in that environment,” he said. “And we still have ‘em. I tend to think that if tornadoes had a large-scale impact on some of Oklahoma's most well-known species, we wouldn't have as many,” Bergin said.
He gives credit to the Wildcare team for all the work they’ve done, but in the overall scheme of things, he’s not sure how much of a difference it makes.
“As a general whole, 800 and something animals, that's a huge amount of animals, but when you look at the actual number of wildlife that roams Oklahoma, it's going to be a very small number,” Bergin said.
He admits numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. After all, he says, there are few signs more hopeful than seeing an injured deer restored to good health.
And that feeling’s echoed by Denise Bash. She’s a consultant for the International Fund for Animal Welfare who spent time at Wildcare in May.
“Saving animals saves people,” Bash said. “Many of the people that showed up at those doors were exhausted police officers, good Samaritans and firefighters. They were clinging onto one more life, one life that they might be able to save,” she said.
IFAW’s Shannon Walajtys hopes other wildlife rehab facilities will look to Wildcare’s work with her group as a model for future disaster response. She also hopes they’ll learn lessons from Oklahoma about how to go about the process and to not be afraid to ask for help when they need it.