When 10-year-old Kendra Matheis found out that her three show horses would be taken to a sturdier barn for hurricane protection, she had a lot of questions.
Where are they headed? How long will they have to go away? Will they die?
“She was upset,” said Kendra’s mom, Stevi Matheis. “She didn’t cry, but when we drop them off, I’m sure there will be some tears.”
In preparation for Hurricane Irma’s potential landfall in Florida on Saturday, farmers and livestock owners across the state are searching for secure facilities for their animals.
Stevi Matheis said she called six local facilities on Monday, each with more than 100 stalls, but they were all already at capacity. So the Ocala family is instead planning to take their horses to a friend’s private barn on Friday.
“I wish the state had more” designated public equine evacuation sites, Stevi Matheis said. “If we didn’t have our friend, we’d have nowhere to take the horses. We’d just be hoping and praying.”
The Southeastern Livestock Pavilion is one such site, and it is located in Ocala, commonly known as the “horse capital.”
Denise Alexander, the pavilion’s facilities manager, said that by Tuesday morning, its 253 stalls were all claimed for. The pavilion charges $15 per night per stall, and along with cattle, it accepts cats, dogs, goats and other animals.
Alexander started receiving calls on Friday from people asking about the pavilion accepting animals ahead of Irma, and by Monday, not only had the calls increased but also had people’s anxiety.
If the animals scheduled to arrive at the pavilion don’t, or the owners don’t get in contact with her, Alexander said she’ll start calling people on the wait list, which has about 350 owners.
“People love these animals,” she said. “They treat them like their family members.”
Cindy Sanders, the IFAS Alachua County Division director, said her organization serves as an emergency-management center for livestock and agriculture whenever a hurricane strikes Florida.
The organization doesn’t do much before storms except take calls, answer questions and clear doubts, Sanders said. But after a storm, it sends emergency personnel out into the fields to assess the aftermath.
Specifically, they check for any animal casualties, loose fencing and fallen debris. They also help carry water for livestock in places that don’t have wells or ponds, or where power might have gone out.
“That’s where our role really plays a part,” Sanders said.
In preparation for Irma, livestock owners can drop off their animals at secure facilities up to hurricane standards, Sanders said. But if they are unable to, they should let the animals roam in the pastures instead of leaving them inside barns or stalls.
The top reason for cattle fatalities during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was fallen structures, Sanders said, and the second reason was electrocution. However, when they’re let loose, the animals can better react to the environment.
If trees fall, for example, the animals will move. If water levels rise, they will seek higher grounds. If winds hit, they will turn their backs.
“They’re smarter than we give them credit for,” Sanders said.