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May 22, 2012 > After disasters, social media helps find lost pets

After disasters, social media helps find lost pets

By Jamie Stengle, Associated Press

FORNEY, Texas (AP), Apr 07 - After seeing the remnants of his tornado-ravaged home, Juan Ventura Jr. held out little hope he would ever see his dog Oscar again. But later that day, about a mile away, a family snapped a photo of a frightened brindle boxer who, like many pets during natural disasters, had dashed away from home.

Oscar was in the backyard when a tornado swept through Forney, just east of Dallas, damaging more than 100 homes last week. There was no sign of him when Ventura returned to the splintered wood and collapsed walls that had been his family's home. The doghouse and the backyard fence were gone.

``When I saw the way his house was, I assumed the worst,'' said Ventura, who is married with two children ages 2 and 5, who have a special fondness for Oscar.

But within days, thanks to Facebook postings, the photo had spread across the Internet, including to at least one of several sites dedicated to helping owners find their beloved pets after wildfires, tornadoes, flooding or other natural disasters. Someone who saw Ventura on television talking about his missing dog also saw the photo, and word quickly got back to the family - and Oscar, tail wagging, got back to Ventura.

``I think this type of thing is really starting to pick up speed,'' said Heather Mathewson, who runs several Facebook pages and a website to help find missing pets in Texas, including one featuring Oscar that was set up after more than a dozen tornadoes hit North Texas on Tuesday. ``Social media can really function as such an effective means after this kind of disaster.''

Mathewson got involved after the deadly wildfires last year that destroyed more than 1,600 homes in Bastrop, a town near Austin. She said information about lost or found animals will get posted on one site but quickly spread to others. If a shelter allows it, pictures of animals at the facility will get posted. They also try to be in touch with local veterinarians who may have been brought pets.

A day after a deadly outbreak of tornadoes hit Alabama on April 27, Michelle Amaral of Birmingham and other animal lovers set up a website and Facebook page. ``Almost immediately'' they began getting descriptions and pictures of lost and found pets, she said.

``Even though a lot of the electricity was knocked out in a lot of areas, people still had their cell phones or they had their car charger to still power up their cell phones,'' Amaral said. ``They were able to communicate with us on social media through that mechanism. It was incredible.''

Those who work with such sites say flyers, newspaper ads and contacting local shelters and veterinarians are still musts. Social media is simply another resource, said Amaral, whose network has since expanded to include Twitter and Pinterest accounts and grown into a lost-and-found site in Alabama.

``So many people are on Facebook. If you have a photo that starts to go viral on a platform like that, somebody sees a pet outside and says, `Wait a minute, I saw a picture of that guy somewhere' and then they pick him up and figure out where he belongs,''' she said.

That's exactly what happened when the tornado hit Ventura's subdivision on Tuesday. Trent Welch was spending the evening at his parents' house about a mile away when he and other family members spotted Oscar behind the house.

``He was just so shaken up and so scared. He didn't want to come to us. It took about an hour and a half,'' said Welch, who added that once they got ahold of Oscar, he was calm.

Then they started posting pictures online.

``I just started posting on Facebook, any chance I got I posted on Facebook. I posted on every website you can think of, every link somebody told me, I posted,'' said Welch's fiancˇ, Mandy Hernandez, adding, ``I had many, many friends share my picture.''

Thanks to the observant web-surfing Good Samaritan, Welch reunited Ventura and Oscar less than two days after the tornado hit.

``As soon as he saw Juan's truck he started wagging his little tail,'' Welch said.

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