How Waggin Tails Pet Resort helps
LETCHER COUNTY, KY ― The animals had fur matted with sand, mud and blood, and often their owners were barefoot and still soaked from head to toe in the floodwaters.
Many people who came Waggin Tails Pet Resort in Letcher County for help, they had lost everything in the historic flood except the clothes they wore on their backs and their pets that accompanied them through it all.
When I met Tara Ritchie, she was on her 16th day as a pet groomer turned animal shelter manager. Barely two weeks had passed since she and her children had sat on the hill where they lived and watched the town of Neon, Ky., crumble before them. At least 38 people have diedand countless others were displaced by the storm.
Within hours of the disaster, Ritchie offered his company a makeshift place where people could drop off their pets for free kibble, rest and a nice hot bath. When the dogs came in after the storm, their ears were down. Their tails did not wag. Humans, dogs and cats were all in shock.
Ritchie thought she could give her friends and neighbors peace of mind about their pets while they sorted out the most important issues. Eastern Kentucky flood survivors needed to find places to sleep, clothes to wear, hot meals to eat, water to drink and a way to clean up the river of mud that had rushed in in their homes.
Ritchie already had animals boarded in the resort’s private suites on the day of the flood, so she set up kennels in the grooming and bathing rooms and took in all four-legged victims for free. His staff spent the first 48 hours stabilizing and calming the animals. They washed the water of the flood and the blood from their coats.
“Just a few days, everything will be fine in a few days,” she recalls thinking of that first weekend. “As soon as they clear the roads, everything will be fine.”
But as the waters receded, Ritchie realized the need was far greater than she thought. More people and more pets have finally reached her business after being blocked for days.
“When someone shows up in the floodwaters, soaked, with the cat they clung to while they swam… It’s like a scary movie thing. It’s crazy. This is not reality,” she told me.
“It was impossible to say ‘no’.”
All of those “yeses” transformed his upscale pet-friendly resort into a shelter and supply distribution center within hours. Just two days after the flood, she had 15 rescues in her care, and soon that number rose to over 40.
More flood coverage:Emergency responders airlift elderly woman from Kentucky floods
Usually, Waggin Tails Pet Resort is the type of place that offers “turndown service” with warm blankets and bedtime treats for the pets it boards. Canine guests watch dog movies like “Scooby-Doo” and “Hotel for dogs.” The business has the means and staff to care for 18 animals at a time, and Ritchie runs a tidy and delightfully chic operation.
“Don’t look at the house,” she told me, with an embarrassed but kind laugh, as she led me past thousands of pounds of donated kibble that had been sorted by animal size and age.
Over the next hour, she was showing me over 80 saves, which was down from the day before, when she hit her new high of 93. It was the first time in two weeks that she was putting boxes in every reasonable corner of the complex, including the men’s and women’s restrooms.
She had since sent a litter of kittens that needed to be bottle-fed to a foster home and another neighbor took in a pregnant cat so she could give birth more peacefully. Most of the time, Ritchie wonders how she can continue this mission, but dog and cat enthusiasts in the community, state, and even the country fill in the gaps when she thinks she’s hit a wall.
Local teenagers volunteer to walk the dogs and clean the crates. Cash donations flow through Venmo and Paypal to keep its lights on and staff employed. The Raceland High School football team showed up to unload a truckload of supplies. At one point someone asked for chicken food and she couldn’t help it. The next time the phone rang, it was someone who had chicken food to share.
“People came from all over” to help, she told me as she opened an Amazon package containing two bags of donated dog food. “Animal lovers are a fairly unanimous language.”
A few of the animals have still not been claimed. A sweet black pooch they call “Mack” showed up at a nearby gas station and he’s so well trained she’s sure he has a family somewhere.
But most of the pets I’ve visited in Waggin Tails have owners who are suddenly homeless.
And all have a story.
“Zoe was so stressed she had seizures for the first 24 hours,” Ritchie explained, as we walked through the resort’s bathroom, which was now filled with kennels.
“Gertrude is around 100 years old,” she told me. “An animal shelter brought her to us and said, ‘Can you keep her until we try to find her.
Of course, she couldn’t say no.
“Louis’ mother actually had depression,” Ritchie said. “Louis was her whole world, and it was just more than she can handle right now.”
A few crates away, another dog wagged its tail at us.
“This one’s father agreed to give up the dog because he was living in the truck with the dog,” she explained. “He finally agreed to let us keep him. I think he’s working on housing, last I heard.
Housing, in fact, is the biggest barrier to bringing animals home. Even before the flood, there wasn’t much flat land to build on, and now, she says, many of her friends and neighbors are reluctant to put their homes back on the land where everything washed away.
This level of devastation is entirely new territory for Letcher County.
“It’s something none of us were prepared for,” Ritchie told me. “There is no way to prepare. There was no way to run, and you couldn’t have run faster, if you wanted to.
“We just sat there and couldn’t do anything. We were completely helpless.
So now she helps in the only way she knows how. She cares for the animals until their owners are able to care for them. She set up the Waggin Tails parking lot like a “free flea market” with crates, litter, food and leashes to take away. Ritchie has contacted local vets to ensure wounds are treated and needs are met.
His Facebook page and business as a whole have become something of a lost and found for all the pets in Eastern Kentucky who lived through the flood. People send her pictures and she keeps a close eye on those that haven’t been found yet.
The reunion helps him hold on.
“Oh my God, this is the best, this is the best,” she told me, beaming. “Every time someone comes back to pick up their dogs…the owners cry. The staff are crying. … If it’s 11 or 12 o’clock in the evening, who cares. Because the family is so excited and the kids are so excited. Their children need their pets right now. It’s great, and I can’t wait for it to start again.
On the Friday of my visit, I eagerly scanned the parking lot, hoping to see exactly what she meant. She had heard that there might be a family or two able to bring their pets home that day.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t see it firsthand, and a few more days would pass before Petey the pug would go home with his family, and Koda and Zena would be able to go home with theirs.
Once back in Louisville, however, I contacted Heather Sexton, who welcomed Blackey the cat into her family earlier that week. The 2-year-old bobtail cat belonged to Sexton’s son, Kamryn Potter. Their house had been damaged by the flood and they had also lost a car.
Blackey had actually disappeared about a month before the storm, and when the flood hit Kamryn lost all hope that Blackey would ever return home.
Next, Sexton spotted a video that Ritchie had posted on Facebook.
Blackey was there on screen, demanding attention, as she always did.
“I found your cat!” Sexton shouted at his family.
They went to Waggin Tails as soon as they heard from Ritchie, and they were able to drive her home that day.
“I think we drove our vehicle on two wheels because we were flying to catch it,” Sexton told me.
Ritchie was sad to see Blackey go – on the 12th day after the storm, the extremely social cat even took a little nap with her under the desk. But stories like Kamryn’s explain why the dog groomer kept her doors open and welcomed as many animals as she could. That’s why her tired eyes memorize all the photographs she receives of lost animals in Eastern Kentucky.
“How do you not see this need that is here,” Ritchie asked me. “You can not.”
She gives something back to her community when, often, she feels like she has lost everything.
Blackey and all the other animals she reunited or kept safe from the disaster are testament to that.
“I thought it was a miracle,” Sexton told me. “A small piece of hope restored not only for us, but also for my son, who had lost all hope of finding her.”
Columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, southern Indiana, and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and sometimes a little weird. If you have something in your family, your city, or even your closet that fits this description, she wants to hear from you. Say hello to [email protected] or 502-582-4053.