Text and photos by John Keeble
A thin straggle of people, bright yellow jackets and hard hats, keep to the road centre are they search in the desolate wasteland of Ground Zero, Manta’s earthquake-devastated Tarqui neighborhood.
Their eyes and ears take in everything in this sealed-off zone guarded by police and armed soldiers. They are a Cuenca animal rescue team searching for the forgotten lives in the ruins — the dogs and cats left behind when the human victims and survivors were taken out.
The streets of shattered homes and businesses are too much for the team to search together. Half of the members, led by ARCA Foundation president Valentina León, search one street while the rest, led by Cuenca veterinary professor Cristina Bernardi, search others. The smell in the air makes everyone keep their face masks securely in place.
Valentina’s group calls into wrecked buildings, scanning the rubble for any sign of life. Nothing but the deadness of destruction. Suddenly another group — local people who have joined forces with the ARCA team to distribute food — come up from the sea-end of Ground Zero. They have found a dog, thin, confused, but otherwise in good shape. A vet examines her, then she is taken to safety.
The Arca group pushes on. They come upon a dozen men in protection gear that makes the rescue team’s precautions look flimsy in the extreme. The men are clearing hazardous building materials exposed by the earthquake’s violence.
This is another reminder of time running out for anything alive in the rubble: the whole area is scheduled to be cleared with heavy machinery and animals hiding in their once-safe and loving homes are unlikely to be saved.
The team questions the workmen like they questions everyone; it is always the local people who know of animals hiding away or in need. Then the team moves on.
From high above, in a wreck that was once a home, there is a plaintive cry of a cat. At first it is hard to pinpoint the exact location. A young veterinarian, Belén Andrade, ventures into the dangerously smashed building. Someone has been leaving food and water for the cat. Belén stands at the bottom of stairs leading to the first floor and patiently calls down the cat, stroking him, giving him confidence. She carefully carries him out, puts him into gentle waiting hands – but he panics and erupts into a fighting frenzy, and escapes back into the house.
While others move on to check more buildings, Valentina still has hopes of saving the cat. She does what is, for most people, the unthinkable: she climbs the stairs into the chaos of the room above. But the cat has retreated even higher, out of reach, and he watches her, alert for any new attempt to catch him.
Later, when he has calmed down, Cristina returns and coaxes him to her on the stairs. She spends a long time stroking and talking to him, and finally eases him into a cat transport box.
A second cat is enticed into friendly care, only to fight free again and escape in a flurry of claws and blood. ”She is pregnant,” says Cristina. ”I really want to save her and her kittens. We will try to get back here before we return to Cuenca.”
Eventually the search is complete, the animals added to those found earlier around the outside of the closed-off area.
In that open area of Tarqui, where people have refused to leave, a local woman, Lorena, and her young daughter showed the team where animals needed help. There were puppies, kittens, a cat with the fur ripped off his back in the earthquake, an abandoned young dog. Lorena took in one of the kittens to join her family of children and dogs. Many dogs and cats were treated, vaccinated, wormed, protected against fleas, and bags of food were given out.
But another side of the team’s work hit everyone hard. There were seven dogs with advanced distemper. They were dying and the team ended their suffering amid tears from their owners and team members alike.
Most of that work fell to Belén as the vet with that group. She said after putting down six of them: “It is very upsetting. I feel very sad but we have to stop their suffering.”
Cristina, the Italian lead vet, said later: “We are concerned about the dogs in that area but I don’t think distemper is a big problem in the wider area of the earthquake.”
The ARCA team — one of about six veterinarian teams working in the earthquake areas along the coast — spent four days in and around Manta. They treated more than 300 dogs and cats as well as distributing large amounts of dry animal food,
The day’s rescued dogs and cats were taken to the Manta veterinary practice of Bairon Zambrano Farias, who helped the team and provided a home base and sleeping quarters. The animals were treated, cleaned, fed and given the care and affection they desperately needed after the trauma of the earthquake.
Two days later, the animals arrived with the team in Cuenca, the start of their new lives.
The stories of the cats in Ground Zero both had happy endings. Cristina talked her way back in to Ground Zero for another attempt to rescue the pregnant cat and found that her owner had returned and taken her to safety — and Valentina fell in love with the rescued cat, named him Filipo, and gave him a home with her.
On Tuesday, the ARCA team was back in the earthquake area continuing its dedicated work to reunite pets with their owners.
How you can help
Thousands of animals are suffering in the earthquake areas. Rescue teams of veterinarians and support staff are working everywhere they can — and they need support for medicines, animal foods and equipment, and transport.
If you can help, please donate money or goods. Everything helps.
The Cuenca team in this article was organized by ARCA Foundation. They are currently on their third mission.
“You can donate food or medicines — but do not buy medicine without knowing what is needed,” advised the team’s lead veterinarian, Professor Cristina Bernardi. “It helps us more if you give money, so that we can buy what we need at that moment. But, whatever you want to do, it helps.”
You can contribute to the ARCA efforts by donating food and other items, or cash: use the website at http://fundacionarca.com/ for direct payments to the ARCA bank account or call in at Pet Spa, Juan Jaramillo 4-81 and Mariano Cueva, or Clínica Solidaria Veterinaria ARCA, Baltazara de Calderón 2-37 y Miguel Vélez.
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Other independent organizations are also helping the animals. These include Socorro Animal Ecuador: https://www.generosity.com/emergencies-fundraising/ecuador-earthquake-urgent-help-for-animals