In a tale akin to Noah’s Ark, a group of rescuers braved Mother Nature herself to save helpless animals from the lava and ash of an active volcano.
Enduring scorching heat and suffocating ash from an erupting volcano that threatened to engulf an entire island, they made an all-out effort to save countless animals abandoned by those who had no choice but to flee without them.
Montserrat’s active volcano forced residents to flee
Once the site of an Irish colony, the island of Montserrat is now a British Overseas Territory, located in the West Indies. Thousands of tourists flock there yearly to experience a taste of the tropics. However, the island also happens to have an active volcano.
On June 25th, 1997, which was described as a “modern day Pompeii,” the volcano erupted with silent lava flows, creeping dangerously towards the residents. Clouds of blackening ash covered the skies, reducing the visibility of those on the ground, and rendering them unable to see the lava coming down. Overwhelming heat and suffocation then engulfed the locals, resulting in19 deaths.
As people fled the disaster, many were forced to abandon their cherished pets.
Amidst the chaos, animals were left behind as their owners fled the scene, leaving the pets to suffer a grim fate. Many desired to return for their beloved companions, but since emergency shelters did not allow animals, and taking them overseas was prohibitively costly, their hopes were shattered.
Thus, domesticated animals were set free, left to fend for themselves as their caretakers escaped to safety. Facing poisonous ash and darkening blight, animals had to depend on their instincts to survive, scavenging on livestock and gnawing on contaminated plants.
Their struggle to survive seemed hopeless. The British administration was having a hard enough time accommodating the Montserratian locals, let alone their pets. Yet one man was eager to do all he could to save the lost creatures from a terrible, lonely fate.
Walsh to the rescue
John Walsh was just the man for the job – a charming and calm man with experience saving animals around the world spanning decades. He spearheaded Operation Gwamba in 1964, which saw the rescue of some 10,000 wild animals from flooding – caused by the construction of the Afobaka Dam, in Suriname.
Later, he rescued animals from the Gulf War in Kuwait, and the Bosnian War. During the conflicts, he helped save animals caught in the crossfire of the warring factions. After the war rescues, he went into law enforcement, where he saved many animals forced to fight in arenas, like those in dog and cock fights.
When he received a call from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) to help save the animals off the burning island, Walsh jumped right into the fray. He laid his eyes upon the destruction caused by the volcano, with the once lush, colorful tropical landscape covered in a gray blanket of volcanic ash. Seeing this put a certain fire in Walsh’s heart.
He was provided with an abandoned house by musician Justin “Hero” Cassell, who lived on the border of the exclusion zone, his base while he endured the heat and suffocating conditions of the island. Cassell also gave Walsh some needed information about the abandoned animals.
Despite the hesitation of the locals and the inability of the British government to help, Walsh pushed on, even as his chances of a safe extraction diminished. As he made moves to survey and rescue animals, Walsh started to feel the weight of his task.
Then Gerardo Huertas came into the picture. A careful and observant man, Huertas was described as someone who evaluated his problems before he performed a task – unlike Walsh who jumped in without considering the risk.
The men worked together to save the animals, using a WSPA truck to carry the animals to safety. Despite the ash choking them, the pair continued to free dogs and cats from a “living hell.” Although they still did not have a place to keep the animals, they did the best they could to heal and provide for them.
There was the constant fear of being engulfed in lava, or their paths being obstructed, leaving them with no escape. Shockingly, the pair even found people who chose to remain with their pets rather than flee the disaster zone.
They built a much-needed shelter, which began to fill up before it could even be finished. People visited the kennel with heavy hearts, knowing they would have to leave their pets behind in the care of others, while they went off to search for new homes.
Veterinarian Radcliffe Robins, already sickened by the harrowing conditions of the island, had to euthanize several animals who could not be adopted, which haunts him to this day. “I still feel it,” he says.
Eventually, rescuer Kathi Travers joined the effort. Travers was aware of the low chances of a safe extraction, and prayed for God’s help in saving as many animals as she could. She assisted in saving cattle and donkeys.
Finally, the time came to evacuate the animals off the island. With the help of one-time attorney Karen Corbin, Walsh and his team secured a boat to neighboring Antigua and Barbuda.
At that point, many residents, already fed up with the British administration, began questioning the animal rescue efforts, wondering why Walsh and his team were saving animals over humans.
Having experienced his fair share of similar criticism, however, Walsh did not relent, determined to save creatures that could not save themselves, and had no one else to depend on.
Leaving Montserrat, Walsh and his team had to decide on a relocation area for the abandoned animals. They settled on Miami Florida, a six hour flight away. From there, the animals were distributed to their new homes across the U.S.
Walsh resumed animal rescue work until he retired in 2006. Plymmie, the puppy he rescued in Plymouth enjoyed a new life on the coast of New England.