Storming into chaos, they save cats and dogs and such

Some TV people strain hard to get you to like them; some don't have to strain at all. The "Animal Storm Squad" folks are good-hearted souls who are instantly likable. Smart and fit, they use their brains and energy to try to rescue animals after a storm. Their show debuts Friday (March 11) on NatGeo Wild. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

As wildfire ripped
through Northern California, lives and homes were endangered.

The “Valley Fire:
sprawled across 76,000 acres last September, killing four people and
destroying 1,281 homes. At the evacuation camp, Laura Kennedy was
sure she'd lost her home and more.

“There's a lot of
chaos ... and a lot of communication all around the camp of what's
existing, what's no longer existing,” she said. “I wasn't
expecting to find my cats again (or) they would be horribly burnt.”

And then, she said,
“I found these amazing people.”

Those are the people
in the new “Animal Storm Squad” cable series. While others focus
on people and property, they search for pets.

The public was still
barred from the fire area, but the squad – complete with
storm-chaser vehicle and medical expertise – was allowed back in.
It was surprised to find Kennedy's house had survived.

“We let her know
that her house was still standing,” said Karissa Hadden, the team's
founder, “and that we were there to look for her cats. And we set
up a couple traps.”

The traps worked;
the cats were rescued before being damaged by heat, hunger and

For Haddad, such
tasks are vital. “Her heart is bigger than anyone's I've ever
known,” said Erik Fox.

Also, her weatherman
is bigger than anyone else's. That's Fox, a former Army sergeant who
stands 6-foot-6, weighs 265 pounds and is shaken by the job's
extremes. “It can be bittersweet,” he said.

Haddad, 32, lives in
Whitney, a tiny town near a massive provincial park in central
Ontario. There, she has dogs, cats, hamsters and more, plus a husband
and a job as a veterinary assistant.

That's a job she
leaves often. Nine times in the past couple years, she's left for
10-14 days of animal rescues, through her group, Never Stop Saving.

“Thankfully, the
veterinarian that I work for is on my board of directors,” she
said. “So he fully supports this. He's been there with me to help
me get this off the ground.”

The idea started,
she said, after a tornado hit Moore, Okla., three years ago. A friend
had found five kittens that survived after their mom died.

“I made numerous
calls for hours, trying to find a safe place for these cats,” she
said. “Unfortunately, the next day three of the five kittens ended
up passing away. It just made me think that I never want that to
happen again to somebody's family.”

So she created the
squad, including people she'd met during previous storm-chasing.

-- Fox, who spent 14
years in the Army and became a storm-chaser for a Texas TV station;
he's also a weather expert. “I can look about 10 days out (and see)
where we need to be,” he said.

-- Dustin Feldman, a
lifelong animal guy. “To my mother, I always seemed to have a small
zoo,” he said. He later worked for large zoos (in Chicago and
Kenya) and started an adventure-travel business.

-- Leigh Ann
Bennett, a physician's assistant. She can patch up the people and
help with the animals, including finding temporary homes near Red
Cross shelters or beyond. “If it's a hurricane or a flood, there
are veterinarians' offices or even the local animal-control center,”
she said.

They urge more
preparation, including having emergency pet rations and medication.
“Microchip your pets .... That makes our job so much easier,”
Haddad said.

And people need help
too, Fox said. Experts “really want people to wear helmets. If ...
a tornado hits your house, it's really going to protect your head.”
Even a giant Army guy wears one.

-- “Animal Storm

-- 10 p.m. Fridays,
NatGeo Wild; debuts March 11