Every Living Creature
When a massive Caribbean volcano erupts, the island’s residents flee, leaving their beloved animals behind. As pets and livestock are engulfed in ash and penned in by lava, waiting to perish, three brave souls risk death and evade the law to save every last one. A modern-day Noah’s Ark.
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The quaking built to a low thrum in the early morning of June 25, 1997. Then it quieted. A few hours later, an ash cloud plumed into the sky with the force of a fired smokestack. Winds carried it west. And that should have been that, if history were any guide.
The Soufriere Hills Volcano had been threatening the small Caribbean island of Montserrat for two years. This volcano was not like volcanoes portrayed in movies. Instead of exploding violently and calming itself back to a long slumber, the Soufriere Hills volcano had come to life over weeks, which turned to months, which turned to years. Layers of lava, too thick to flow, formed domes on top of its vent. From time to time, a dome became unstable and collapsed, sending ash and rock and gas coursing down its slopes in destructive avalanches known as pyroclastic flows.
The flows took their toll. Much of the southern region of the island had to be evacuated; the capital of Plymouth had been reduced to an ashen hull. In recent weeks, the flows had become more frequent and more intense. Scientists believed the volcano was primed to produce widespread disaster. Officials issued dire warnings, urging residents to leave areas where the volcano could deliver “an agonizing death which cannot be out-run.”
Yet to date the volcano delivered jabs but no fatal blows. Farmers continued to plant corn and potatoes and carrots in the rich volcanic soil beneath its dome. Tourists streamed into villas and beaches in the unaffected north. The island’s Vue Point Hotel marketed the volcano as “Old Smoky” in promotional materials. Forested gullies gave way to a valley lush with guava, soursop, plum rose, and mango. There was talk of resurrecting the capital, Plymouth, from beneath its foot of ash. Life continued in defiance of the rumbling volcano.
On that June day, the volcano’s thundering was, to many ears, the complaint of a titanic Chicken Little.
Not for long. Quaking resumed shortly before 1 p.m. An ash cloud rose vertically and reached 30,000 feet in a matter of minutes. Coursing rock and gas, hot as a fired kiln, shattered, smothered or lifted away anything in its path. The danger arrived unannounced. Low-lying clouds obscured the volcano, making the flows difficult to see as they approached. Equally sinister, the flows were noiseless. Victims realized their peril only after being plunged into darkness or hearing nearby buildings explode or “roads boiling,” as recounted in one geological study, “Eyewitness Accounts of 25 June 1997.” One survivor described hearing a sharp crack and thundering and feeling “hot, hot, hot, like I was in an oven. The whole place turn black for about 20 minutes, heavy ash falling … black, like black cloth.” Then the fire came. “It travelled faster than a car. No car could escape … I think it must be the end of the world.”
In Bethel, on the east coast of the island, a man was on the roof of his house when a flow came hurtling toward him. He gathered his wife and daughter and ran inside, where they thought they’d be safe. The daughter, Mary, was in the hallway as the flow burst through. The lava singed her. The family fled out of the back of the house, taking a green path untouched by the lava to safety. Mary had to be flown to Guadeloupe for medical care. When they finally returned home, they found the desiccated hides of their dogs in the front yard, tied where they had left them in the rush to flee the flames. The heat had sucked away their body fluids.
In mere minutes, the volcano dropped some five million cubic meters of ash. The ash covered an area of four-square kilometers, rendering green hillsides and fields a gray moonscape. Its human toll was grim. Recovered bodies showed arms drawn up tight against chests, a common position of burn victims. By the following day, rescuers ascertained the volcano had claimed the lives of 19 people ranging in age from three months to 73-years-old.
Mandatory evacuation orders went up. Survivors scrambled to gather belongings. They fled on foot and in cars. In the tumult, beloved animals became the unthinkable: afterthoughts. Even those who had the wherewithal to consider rescuing their animals had almost no options. More than two-thirds of the island had been rendered uninhabitable by the flows. A relatively small area in the north was available for evacuees and its shelters prohibited animals. Attempting to take a pet overseas would be daunting and costly.
Residents set dogs and cats loose in the streets in last ditch attempts to save them. They freed cows and donkeys in the fields. Then they fled to the crowded schools and churches and tents in the north, where food and supplies would soon run low; where Montserratians made do with cots and cook stoves and had little protection from lashing rains; where fading hope would turn to desperation. People who had remained in danger areas before the deadly events of June 25 or who had ventured back to care for animals now stayed away. The volcano was too dangerous, too unpredictable. There was no safety in its shadow.
Days passed, then weeks. Evacuation orders held as conditions worsened. Ash poisoned the water. In affected towns and villages, animals wandered helplessly, mired in darkness. The ash burned their paws and singed their whiskers. It buried what food there was to scavenge. The animals did the only thing they knew. They waited, prowling a paradise leveled. Dogs formed packs and preyed on cattle, instinctive acts of desperation. Ash covered grazing fields, and the cows began to starve.
It was a Biblical annihilation. The animals of Montserrat were slowly, painfully dying.
John Walsh was a tall, ruddy-faced, cigar-smoking Bostonian with a fast charm. He deployed it tactically, making contacts and connections in remote parts of the world where he was a last resort for animals in dire circumstances. “You use anything within your reach to solve an issue,” he said of his work. “I excel at it.” His resume confirmed his bravado. He lived in the Suriname bush for a year and a half rescuing jungle animals trapped by the construction of a hydroelectric dam. He resuscitated birds and marine turtles soaked with oil released by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. He ventured to the bloodiest battles of the Bosnian civil war to organize veterinary relief shipments. Trained in both wildlife biology and law enforcement, he investigated exotic animal smuggling cases and raided dogfights and cockfights.
Walsh was smooth and sunny in television interviews, infusing scenes of misery with promises of repair and hope. He assumed the role of happy warrior for the stranded and suffering. He smiled away criticism that his work ignored human suffering. Humans had their caretakers, he said. Legions descended to help people in times of crisis. Too often the animals had just him. “You are there for the animal,” he told a reporter for his local paper, the Standard-Times. “You are the only one there for the animal.”
Walsh, 57, was home in Lakeville, south of Boston, that summer of 1997 when he got a call about Montserrat from the director general of the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals. Walsh had worked for the group since the 1960s. The organization was getting pleas for help. Heart-rending images of the devastation circled the world. A Reuters image showed a pulverized street of downtown Plymouth, the blue sea beyond mocking the lunar grayness. In the middle of it all, a single dog lifted its nose to the sky to howl in protest of its lost world.
“Have you seen the footage from Montserrat?” the director general asked. He told Walsh to get in touch with whomever he could on the island. Walsh got to work, but made little headway. Other WSPA rescuers had visited the island on a surveilling mission, but they had scattered back to home bases. No one was going to save the animals. The director general gave Walsh a new order: “Get down there.”
The airport had been destroyed in the flows, so Walsh flew to neighboring Antigua and boarded a boat to take him east, into the belly of rising smoke. The air as he approached Montserrat turned sulfurous and gritty. Fine particles collected in his hair, eyelashes, and throat. Even from a distance the ash was astonishing, a smothering gray alongside untouched greenery.
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In 1493, Montserrat’s rugged silhouette reminded a passing Christopher Columbus of the Benedictine Monastery Santa Maria de Montserrat northwest of Barcelona, hence its name. The small island lies along the curve of the Lesser Antilles, a string of islands born out of the junction of North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. Its geologic history reads plainly on the landscape, with volcanic ridges piling up into what the nephew of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as “a very wild and romantic scene.”
It was known as the Emerald Isle, both for its lush greenness and improbable Irish colonial history. Indentured Irish servants arrived in 1632, thrust out of St. Kitts by the Royal Governor, pawns in a power struggle between the British and the Catholic powers of Europe. Later, entrepreneurs from Ireland and elsewhere established slave plantations for tobacco and indigo and eventually sugar. Great Britain acquired the island in 1783. It remains a mix of its diaspora roots, a British outpost with a largely black population where St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated as a public holiday to mark the date of a slave uprising.
It’s a place marked by flowery bougainvillea vines and banyan trees, rare hummingbirds and iguanas. With distinctive black volcanic sand skirting its shores, Montserratians watched big tourism go to neighboring islands with sugar-white beaches of holiday dreams. Montserrat didn’t battle the trends. Instead it fashioned itself as a Caribbean island of another era, where natural beauty was underdeveloped, where the likes of Sting and the Rolling Stones could visit the mountain-top recording studio of Beatles producer George Martin without being mobbed, where life unfolded in slow, predictable ways. “By 8 every morning Plymouth picks up where it left off at sunset,” the New York Times observed in 1990. “The same policemen in their red-striped colonial trousers start chatting with the same smiling girls; the same Rastafarian bounces his dreadlocks down Parliament Street to the beat of the same reggae cassette.”
The island hosted terrible natural disasters over the years: floods, earthquakes, and Hurricane Hugo, which wiped out 90 percent of the island’s infrastructure in 1989. The Soufriere Hills volcano was the one threat that never materialized. Conventional wisdom held that the volcano was dormant, perhaps even dead. The fact that the soufrieres, from the French for sulphur, produced sulfur springs, hot pools and rising steam was considered little more than a geologic curiosity. The earthquakes that rocked the island from time to time provided little indication of the volcano’s plans, according to scientists. After seismic activity destroyed a church and sugar mill and several government buildings in Plymouth, a British geologist noted in 1936: “Gas and steam are here being emitted with a continuous roar, like that produced by the release of steam from a high-pressure boiler. This is however said to be the normal condition of the soufrière.”
It wasn’t until the 1980s that scientists identified the danger of the volcano. Citing a computer model, scientists declared a future eruption certain, accurately predicting, as it turned out, the area that would see the most activity. Their report received scant attention. Officials later suggested it was lost at sea when Hurricane Hugo came through in 1989, according to Polly Pattullo in Fire from the Mountain. Yet even had the report reached a wide audience, it’s not certain its warnings would have been heeded. Residents bore a deep-seated mistrust of British oversight, which extended to foreign scientists. Locals, according to Pattullo, believed the scientists had “an ulterior motive in exaggerating the gravity of the situation”: to evict people from their land.
So it was that the volcano took the island by surprise, about to turn it into what some later called “a modern day Pompeii.”
Walsh found an island quickly emptying. More than half of the population of 11,000 had departed and many more residents were in the process of leaving for England or wherever else they could reach. Life became excruciating for evacuees who refused to leave or didn’t have the means. Christian Science Monitor reported people crowding into “plastic, windowless hangar tents in which families … store their food and cooking equipment under their beds.”
Walsh had the name of a contact — Justin “Hero” Cassell, a musician and brother of the singer-songwriter Arrow famed for his ubiquitous 1980s dance classic, Hot-Hot-Hot. Cassell had become an activist during the crisis, urging the British government to provide more aid for the island and more care for the people stranded in the north. That their pets were going untended was yet another loss, a painful reminder of stability stripped away. He offered Walsh his evacuated house on the border of the exclusion zone. Cassell had contacts in the department of agriculture who passed on the whereabouts of orphaned animals. They were everywhere: in the countryside, in towns, and especially in Plymouth.
From this makeshift base, Walsh began plotting his moves. He learned the names of other people in the know, volcanologists in particular. He prodded these experts for times that he might safely enter the exclusion zone. The volcanologists hesitated. There were no good times. It was a matter of taking reasonable chances and using best guesses. And if his guesses turned out to be wrong, he knew, no one would rescue him.
The exclusion zone had been sealed tight by the British governor, Frank Savage. Savage was an old hand in the diplomatic-service, with previous postings in Cairo, Washington, Aden, Dusseldorf, Peking, and Lagos. He was known for a stiff formality, wearing starched shirts on the muggiest island days and speaking in the “special, slow-motion and extra-clear English which diplomats generally use in front of foreigners,” as the Independent observed in 1997. After the devastation of June 25, he issued a sharp warning to “hold-outs” and anyone else who ventured into the unsafe southern part of the country, saying security personnel and volunteers would not be put in harm’s way to rescue them. “The government wouldn’t do anything,” Walsh later told the Boston Globe. He understood clearly that those rules applied to him, too.
Armed with dog food, he bombed down broken roadways in a rented truck, ash filming the windshield, gashed ruts heaving the truck this way and that. He talked his way past checkpoints to reach Plymouth. He entered a city that his mind told him made no sense. Time stopped dead. Eerie, he thought. Ash rose three feet in the streets. It buried the first floors of buildings. A clock tower at eye-level was all that could be seen of one building. The ash choked off air and light, making it unknowable where roadsides ended and rubble began. Which was of little practical matter in the deserted capital.
The weather was brutally hot, a heat made worse for Walsh by the full-face gas mask he needed to avoid breathing ash. From time to time, he pulled away the mask to wipe sweat and gasp cooler air, only to gag on suspended sulfur. He walked down Parliament Street and back up again, looking for life, finding scenes of a British colonial outpost interrupted. From time to time, Walsh caught sight of dust-covered, fearful dogs. He moved toward them slowly, one hand outstretched for sniffing, food in the other.
Some dogs darted away. Many more had little choice but to let Walsh approach, chained as they were to eye hooks in walls and the ground, left behind by owners who’d assumed they’d be back and now were barred from returning. He freed a Jack Russell mixed breed from its chains outside an isolated shack. He came across pups trying to suckle a mother who couldn’t produce enough milk to feed them. He found dogs gnawing carrion cooked in lava. Many had teeth worn to nubs from trying to root out irritating clumps of ash in their skin. Some cats were so scrawny their ribs could be counted.
Walsh scrubbed ash from the animals as best as he could with water from standpipes. He left food. He listened to the whimpers of dogs whose barks had deserted them — their lungs charred by the scalding gases of the volcano. He marked the animals’ location and type on a map. From before recorded history, as geologist Ron Oxburgh pointed out in the foreword to a study called The Eruption of the Soufriere Hills Volcano, volcanoes (along with meteorites) constituted the prime suspects for the largest terrestrial extinctions of animal life. Walsh was rebelling against nature’s most violent manifestation of sudden change. He had to start from scratch. He had nowhere to put these animals, no means of transporting them somewhere else. Nothing approaching the ark they needed. And he was desperately shorthanded. One man alone, he knew, couldn’t rescue all these animals.
Gerardo Huertas wore a tidy, clipped mustache and dressed smartly. In other circumstances, his appearance might have suggested a career in banking. He’d grown up on the Pacific side of Costa Rica and pursued a bachelor’s degree in marine biology in Romania. Walsh had hired him to run WSPA’s Costa Rican section. At 38, he’d been around the globe rescuing animals from natural disaster and war zones, bringing his multicultural background to his work, and banking what he felt was a surplus of good karma.
Huertas had been the first WSPA worker to travel to Montserrat after the volcano came to life. He’d surveilled the damage and left hoping the volcano would settle and residents would be able to go back to their homes and tend their animals. He’d worried for the animals while he was gone, and now he was eager to go back. He took a flight from Costa Rica to Panama, then to Antigua, where he got a boat to Montserrat to meet up with Walsh.
The two men were temperamental opposites — Walsh a brash risk-taker, a man-about-disaster scenes, Huertas a methodical risk manager, a head-down taskmaster. On their scramble across the exclusion zone, Huertas fingered the letters of their organization, WSPA, into the ash dust on the truck in case calamity struck. There was no romanticizing disaster in his world. There were animals to be rescued, work to be done. He believed in the approach used by GreenPeace: Bear witness. To which he added a corollary: Then throw manpower at it.
Walsh and Huertas teamed up in Plymouth on a searingly hot day. Ash rose and choked them, and face masks did little good. We are on the moon, but with ghosts’ houses, Huertas recalled thinking. Every step kicked up more dust. They went house by house. Behind some they found dogs chained. They found other animals trapped under half-collapsed structures. A living hell, Huertas thought. One dog, a yellow mutt that survived, apparently, on bananas, dove into a bag of food he held open. The animals had ash in their eyes, nubs for teeth. They were deteriorating.
For days on end, the pair returned. At this stage, with nowhere to take the animals, their job was to triage the worst cases, help where they could.The animals came to know and expect them. Cats proved to be the hardest to help. The creatures hid by day and came out at night, and then warily. Huertas devised a method of taking refuge in abandoned houses on the border of the exclusion zone. He would hunker inside until around 10 p.m. Then, using cans of sardines, he lured cats out of the bushes. They emerged panting, their breath raspy.
The rescuers lived with the nightmare that lava would reach across the island and cut off their pathway to safety, leaving them trapped with no prospect of escape. Governor Savage and other local authorities remained stalwart in keeping their distance from the mission. Savage came under growing pressure to do more for residents suffering extreme duress in the camps up north. To be seen aiding animals and not people could bring unrest.
One day, Walsh was walking in the street when a piece of smoldering lava bounced into view. He scooped it up with a license plate and marveled at it. The lava was the shape of a small volcano. Then he remembered: Some lava meant more lava. “You just want to get out of there. When you see the force of the eruption and how fast they came, you just had to get out of there,” he later recalled.
From time to time, they found people left behind. An elderly woman, apparently confused, refused to go, so Walsh brought her food and medicine. One man refused to leave his dog. Consumed by the distress of his collapsed world, rationality crumbled. He came to believe he was captain of a military operation, and he wouldn’t budge from his Volvo, which doubled as his home. Walsh pleaded with him to leave. The man refused.
To save the animals, the rescuers had to bring them north, and that meant building a kennel. Huertas got the job and went to work finding a suitable location. The majority of the island remained off-limits, so Huertas scoured the north for a spot beyond the volcano’s reach. At one point, he thought he’d found one. Huertas hired workers and had a septic system underway when volcanic ash threatened the spot. Work was abandoned. Another colleague took the baton and began building in an even more remote location, a field that was safer but also farther from the animals they needed to round up.
Even before the fencing was in place, the shelter began filling. The animals came from Plymouth and beyond, mostly island dogs, mutts of every imaginable size and color. There were also purebreds surrendered by wealthier Montserratians who’d fled off-island — good-natured Labradors, territorial German shepherds, regal Rhodesian Ridgebacks.
Montserratians visited the kennel. They were sad visits filled with regret and guilt. Crowded into shelters that didn’t allow animals, the owners had been left with no choice but to relinquish their pets. One day, a woman walked in with a blonde dog. Catherine Buffonge and her husband had heard about the kennel on the news. The dog’s name was Trim, and it was the childhood companion of the couple’s daughter, Ingrid, who was off-island attending medical school. The volcano had swallowed the family home, and now Trim limped and showed signs of pain that worsened by the day. There were no veterinarians to be found. Catherine felt terrible even thinking of surrendering Trim, but there was nothing else they could think to do. The kennel staff agreed to take the dog. That night, Catherine called Ingrid’s apartment in Jamaica to deliver the news. On the other end of the line, Ingrid listened stoically. But when she hung up, she felt a part of herself fall away. “My dog was gone. All my childhood memories were busted apart.”
One woman was a regular at the kennel. She was heavyset and older and visited the small black dog she had been forced to surrender. She asked Huertas over and over: Would her dog be alright? Would it go to a good home? Huertas reassured her it would go to a good home, but he had no idea if that was true.
Dr. Radcliffe Robins, a veterinarian from Antigua, arrived to administer vaccines and assess the animals medically and temperamentally. He tried not to stay in Montserrat overnight in case of another eruption. Ferried back and forth, the swells were so violent he practically had to be carried off the boat. “My head was an exploding drum,” Robins remembers. “I was so violently sick … I actually began to prefer death.”
Robins was a slow-speaking, precise man, who showed signs of his future calling as a child by studying the behavior of his family’s chickens. He took his time examining Montserrat’s dogs, observing them, studying their affect. With resources scarce, he decided to euthanize twenty dogs that had no chance of adoption. He gave each a moment of calm and peace. To this day, the deaths stay with him.
“I still feel it.”
Walsh, meanwhile, continued pulling animals out of apocalyptic towns in the south. The more he worked, the more animals he found. And with animals dying of wounds, starvation, and burns, time was quickly running out.
In her apartment under the Hollywood sign, Kathi Travers threw a few things in a bag and headed to LAX. Travers was a brassy blonde in her mid-40’s. She talked fast and defended animals zealously. She knew Walsh through her work for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, where she rescued lions, monkeys, armadillos and other exotic animals from bad situations, often cases of adoptions gone wrong. She was a master of theatrics, always ready with a quip for newspapers and magazines (“I’m Boston Irish with a New York attitude”) and never without a prop for the TV cameras, often a monkey on her shoulder. The tough talk layered over vulnerability. When she was a girl, her father had left her mother and taken the family dog with him. Helping distressed animals was a way of filling the hole.
Now she boarded a flight to Miami, en route to join Walsh and Huertas in Montserrat. It was July. The volcano was erupting regularly, every twelve hours at one point, producing a fireball of ash and rock that might have been a thing of beauty had it not also been a force of ghastly destruction. Members of the British press who had made their way to the island departed mid-way through the month to cover the death of Princess Diana, herself an animal activist.
Against the exodus, Travers arrived toting pallets of donated dog food transported for free by a cargo company in return for her promise of good press.
Like Walsh, Travers was an improviser. She worked her way into the good graces of a helicopter pilot in the employ of volcanologists. After his day’s work was done, he would take her up to surveil for animals. She learned to find cattle by scanning for swimming pools, where the animals gathered to lap ash-feathered water. “It was like the animals were up to their necks in snow, gray snow,” she later recalled. Donkeys were often in the worst shape. The helicopter brought her to one donkey whose legs were burned to its knees and barely able to stand. Travers applied Furacin, an equine antibiotic ointment. They loaded the donkey into the helicopter and flew it to a property with a makeshift heliport. There, the donkey joined other wounded animals — dogs, cats, goats, tortoises — biding time in a quickly crowding space until they could be relocated.
During rescues, members of Governor Savage’s Royal Montserrat Defense Services sent word through island-wide PA systems: “If I say get out, it may be your only chance to get out.” At times, she needed no alarm. Driving through Plymouth one day, she heard a boom. She looked up to see a rising cloud of smoke and ash. A haze descended. The falling ash covered the window. The island turned a new and deeper gray. This might not be successful, Travers thought as they motored north. She leaned back in her seat, listened to the windshield wipers, and said Hail Marys.
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With the kennel filling up, it was imperative to begin moving animals off the island. A plan to get the shelter dogs and cats out took shape in mid-August. Florida’s Broward County Humane Society had agreed to take the animals. But how to get them there? The airport was shuttered, space on boats at a premium. Karen Corbin, a one-time attorney from Canada who had followed her passion for animal welfare to co-found a humane society on the nearby islands of Antigua and Barbuda, helped secure an Antigua-Barbuda Coast Guard boat to transport the animals there. Meanwhile, Walsh learned of a company that flew freight transport in the Caribbean. He reached the owner by phone and explained he needed to fly the animals out of Antigua. The owner said he’d do it, but he wanted payment in $20 bills in a paper bag. He wouldn’t budge on the terms. Paper bag, $20 bills. Walsh had heard more bizarre.
The exodus couldn’t come fast enough. Conditions in the north had begun to collapse. Months of pent-up frustration were spilling over. Residents leery of Great Britain thanks to the island’s colonial past wanted to move to the United States, particularly Florida. There were immigration backlogs, and questions arose among the waiting evacuees: Why were the rescuers helping dogs reach the States and not them? The Caribbean population in South Florida made the same objections in the international press.
Walsh, in particular, understood how resistance from locals could derail a mission. He had once been beaten to a pulp in Haiti by government thugs who didn’t believe he was setting up an animal aid program. His critics had no way of knowing he had also tried to help Montserratians in harm’s way. After bringing her food and medicine, he’d forcibly removed the confused elderly woman who had sheltered-in-place. When he returned to the holed-up man in the Volvo who believed he was a military captain, Walsh found him dead, burned by lava. Amazingly, the man’s dog had survived, becoming another animal rescued by Walsh.
Mounting tensions on the island began affecting the rescuers. Each had headstrong personalities and remained committed to the hidebound methods endemic in nomadic rescue work. Travers made her career drumming up attention for the most acute cases of animal need. “I’m a steamroller, I don’t let anything get in the way when trying to save an animal.” What others called stunts were to her gestures that brought salvation. Her publicity-centered approach had led to the rescue of tigers, bears, and monkeys from dire captivity in the States. But the others worried she was drawing too much attention to their rescue efforts. The authorities had allowed them to enter the exclusion zone and continue their work with the tacit understanding they would do so quietly. It was best to keep their heads down, but Travers knew no such method.
The differences in style led to friction. Corbin, the head of the Antigua/Berbuda Humane Society, who aided the group from time to time, recalled that Travers jumped out of a helicopter in high heels, an exploit Corbin felt garnered needless attention. Travers denied the claim. Meanwhile, Huertas said Travers made unnecessarily costly bargains for emergency food items, a claim Travers also denied.
Everything she did, she maintained, was to aid the animals.
Just as the plan to get the animals out went into action, Walsh got a tip: There was one last dog living in Plymouth.
The information came from a well-known local character with shady connections. He owned a high-speed boat and had seen the dog on a trip to the south side of the island. It was hanging out on the waterfront eating dead fish by the piers.
Over a hundred dogs and cats were awaiting a boat ride and an airlift off the island, but Walsh couldn’t shake the thought of the one holdout. There was no legal way to get to Plymouth. Entry was barred, checkpoints manned vigilantly as conditions on the island worsened. Risking everything for one dog was foolhardy, but Walsh had done it before. Two years earlier, he dove into a collapsed building after a massive earthquake in Kobe, Japan, to retrieve a single dog. “Who else is going to do it?” he later told a reporter for the Boston Globe.
Walsh asked the tipster to take him to Plymouth in his boat to find the dog. The man refused.
“They’ll see my boat. They’ll see the boat going into the city.”
“How much?” Walsh pressed.
The man with the boat knew it was a seller’s market and smiled.
A few days later, Walsh lit a thin cigar and stepped onto a 26-foot speed boat. He slathered his hands and face with sardine oil in hopes of luring the dog quickly. The city was a mask of gray, the pastel blues and pinks of its Georgian buildings blurred by drifts of ash. The skeletal foot of a looter peeked out from beneath a strip of corrugated metal, which the man had unsuccessfully used to bridge the hot lava.
Walsh picked his way past downed power lines, scarified walls, gnarled metal building frames. At one point, he walked into a bar. Glasses sat on the counter, beer bottles stacked behind. He left his card in one of the empties.
Back in the streets, he heard a whimper, and then he saw an emaciated body, brown and white, bounding out of sight through the ashen ghost town.
“Here girl, here girl,” Walsh called.
He bent to his knee and produced a piece of asiago cheese.
The six-month-old puppy approached, bent down on her forelegs, and sniffed the cheese. She backed away, sniffed once more, and again backed away. Walsh’s hand reached like a shot for the dog’s scruff. He pulled her close, cradling the pup. He liked the feel of her. He made a mental note.
The shelter animals were nervous. They watched people milling around their kennels and stared at the plastic animal carriers piled in rows.
Travers tried reassuring them. “You’ll be alright.”
They eyed her with a mix of confusion, fear, and deep stores of wild tenacity.
The rescuers loaded the dogs and cats — some 120 — into the plastic carriers, then loaded the carriers onto trucks for a trip to the harbor near Brades.
Some miles south, a spontaneous protest had erupted against the governor. Residents demanded more aid. Protestors banged bongo drums and carried signs reading “No More Lies” and “We are not animals. We are human beings,” according to an account in The Independent. They marched to Savage’s office, where they shouted that the Queen was “trampling her subjects” and threatened to declare independence if their demands were not met. Beyond, black smoke and ash could be seen pumping out of the volcano. Eventually, Savage emerged, his local police chief by his side in khaki colonial uniform.
A dreadlocked Rastafarian protester shouted out “let me kill the boy.”
Savage, a caricature of diplomatic poise in his striped shirt and blue tie, replied, “Thank you for coming to see me today.”
“Resign!” someone screamed.
At the harbor, Coast Guard officials, waiting in the boat Karen Corbin had arranged, warned the rescuers to hurry. The protestors weren’t far away. The rescuers worked feverishly but the Coast Guard boat was a narrow, aged freighter, and loading it took time. More time than it should have. When they at last pushed off, the boat groaned under its weight and heaved in the water. The rocking motion rattled the crates and made the dogs sick. Soon they were sticky, howling messes.
The animals arrived exhausted and dirty in Antigua. There would be little relief there. After much maneuvering, rescuers had struck a deal with the government: The dogs and cats could come into the country without the required paperwork so long as their paws didn’t touch ground. The agreed-upon space for them to pass the night was an old part of the airport terminal. The rescuers tried washing the animals off, but it was useless. Dogs and cats passed that night in dirty, wet crates. Then, as if the volcano were determined to exact maximum pain, the animals were loaded onto an airplane — the one Walsh paid for with a bag of twenties — where temperatures in the cargo area dropped in the high altitude. The animals shivered through the final leg of their journey, a six-hour island hopping flight.
Huertas sat in the jumpseat. He was huddled in sleep when he felt something wet against his face. He opened his eyes to see a large nose. A dog had escaped her crate. He thought about taking it back its crate, but she was so cold. He kept her close for the duration of the flight.
Vans from the Broward County Humane Society shelter barrelled into Miami International Airport. Television cameras captured the arrival. The news reports spurred a clamor for the animals, instant symbols of resilience, their survival a miracle. Thousands visited the shelter. One by one, they went to new homes. A tiger-striped cat named Mona went to Tampa. Brandsby — the Jack Russell mix Walsh found tied up to a shed — went to live with a dietician in Boca Raton. The Michigan-based parents of the society’s director of education adopted a cat and named her Island Girl. A woman from Germany who vacationed in Montserrat arrived to adopt a dog with a neck scar that she remembered seeing on the beaches there. She took home a puppy, too.
The work wasn’t over. A series of rescue missions to retrieve Montserrat’s donkeys spurred points of international controversy, with an initial plan to transport them to Cuba reportedly halted by Fidel Castro, who suspected an American plot to spread equine disease. The donkeys went to St. Lucia instead, helped in part by animal advocate Jane Tipson a few years before she was murdered (some allege in retaliation against her animal activism).
Meanwhile, the volcano continued to ravage the island. Before leaving Montserrat to become governor of the Virgin Islands, Frank Savage offered incentives for residents to move, a tactic criticized by some as an attempt to thin out the Afro-Caribbean population. To this day, the volcano is considered dangerous. It has been silent since 2010, but volcanologists have recorded evidence of continued activity. “Except for the gas plume there is nothing visible on the surface, but the instruments show us clearly that the deformation is ongoing and the entire island is still inflating,” Professor Jurgen Neuberg, a volcanologist at the University of Leeds, told the Guardian in 2018. Montserrat has never fully recovered, leaving much of the island frozen in a state of destruction.
The exhausted rescuers who defied the odds in Montserrat scattered to new missions. Emboldened by his work with Walsh, Huertas took on other rescues for WSPA, heading out from Costa Rica to aid animals in Haiti, Sri Lanka, and beyond. The ash remained lodged in his lungs and he coughed for a year afterward. Travers returned to Los Angeles and soon afterward moved to British Columbia, where she penned articles on animal welfare. She carried scars, emotional and physical, from her work on the island. After handling so many ash-covered animals, doctors suspected her fingerprints had been rubbed away.
Upon his return home to Massachusetts, Walsh welcomed a Montserratian castaway — the last dog out of Plymouth whom he had moved heaven and earth to rescue. He named her Lady Ashley Plymouth de Montserrat, Plymmie, for short. Though Plymmie seemed shaken at first, she acclimated with time to the sober New England coast. She became his companion, faithfully waiting for him to return when he jetted off to care for the animals of war-torn Afghanistan, built a moveable animal shelter in El Salvador after an earthquake, and set off for another mission to Montserrat to the help donkeys that had been left behind. At home, Walsh and Plymmie took long walks through the tranquil woods. Walsh later called her one of the best dogs he’d ever have. Despite all that terror she and the other animals experienced, all her struggles in the ashy shadows under the volcano, she retained her sweetness.
She was, he liked to say, a dog who knew the way to your heart.
Sarah Schweitzer is a freelance writer based in northern New Hampshire. She was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing while working as a staff reporter for the Boston Globe.
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