Cats don’t usually show emotion.
But when those cats have been stranded for days in houses deluged with sand and water, as they were during Hurricane Sandy, the reunions of pets and owners can bring palpable reactions from both sides.
Forging such reunions falls on a trained group of animal rescuers who rushed to the New Jersey shore earlier this month, as many had done during Hurricane Katrina. Among them were Mark Vogel of Dedham and Bill Tanguay of Jamaica Plain, senior rescue technicians at Boston’s Animal Rescue League, who spent three days in Seaside and Toms River, N.J., rescuing cats, dogs, turtles and even pet snakes from homes that had been abandoned in the storm.
Typically helping in the gulf, Vogel and Tanguay had spent time helping survivors of Katrina reunite with their pets. This time, their rescue mission in New Jersey led them to sand covered streets, demolished homes, and much colder weather than they were used to.
The non-profit rescue league is the only animal welfare organization in Massachusetts that has a department solely dedicated to animal rescue with trained personnel. Before joining the league 16 years ago, Vogel was a manager at Petco and had been volunteering at ARL in his spare time. After getting a job at ALR, he started going out on “road calls” to rescue animals for various reasons -- cats stuck in trees, gulls that wander from the beach, stray pets.
Tanguay began working at ARL 12 years ago. After moving to Boston from Wisconsin, he applied for a shelter position with ARL because “I wanted to do something worthwhile,” he said. He began mostly cleaning the shelter and taking care of the animals, then helping with rescue on the side.
Now, after 12 years of working together, they help communities beyond Massachusetts – including New Jersey.
When they arrived in the battered beach towns, the men were split into two groups covering the iconic Jersey shore. What were once lively boardwalks looked like a snowstorm of sand, said Vogel. Volunteers and county personnel worked feverishly around them, moving sand off front lawns and streets, back to beaches.
Once dispatched on a call, things got tricky. Sometimes Vogel and Tanguay were able to get in touch with families before reaching their empty homes, so that they could retrieve a key from a family member at a mid-point location. Many times, however, this was not possible; families fled far away.
Getting to many of the houses was difficult. Sometimes Vogel and Tanguay would arrive at an address and realize that the house they were looking for was, literally, no longer there. In other cases, downed power lines stopped them from reaching homes.
Once they arrived at a house, they used either a key or entered by force. Vogel said they don’t like to smash windows – something he had to do only once.
The house visits were mostly for cats. In times of panic or stress, Tanguay explained, cats are “wily” and difficult to catch. Most residents, not anticipating the magnitude of the storm, thought they would be able to get back for them.
“We had a really high ratio of returning animals to their owners,” said Vogel, meaning many animals were spared going to overburdened shelters.
Tanguay spent the first day checking on pets in homes that were safe and undamaged. He and other volunteers fed animals and changed litter boxes.
While most of the visits were routine, Vogel had one unusual experience, after receiving a call from a woman who had four cats in her home. Normally, rescue technicians only entered homes that had been cleared by search-and-rescue teams.
But when Vogel opened the woman’s unlocked front door, he was surprised to find her still in her home, with four large cats. Her car was flooded; she had no way of getting out. She had been in contact with a friend, but she refused to leave without her cats and couldn’t gather them on her own.
Vogel and other volunteers got the cats and the woman out of her home and safely to her friend.
Tanguay spent most of his time on the Barrier Islands, after starting out in Toms River. He was able to escort some residents back to their homes to retrieve their pets, then leave. “Some people are going to be displaced for at least a month,” he said.
Rescue crews didn’t find many dogs on their searches. But Tanguay rescued turtles and snakes, as well as cats, and if a home had a fish tank, he stopped to feed the fish.
Tanguay said the rescue work requires cooperation between various organizations, and that rescuers come to know each other as they work together in the wake of tragedy.
“I saw the same people in New Jersey that I saw in Katrina,” he said. “We never lose touch (and) we get to work in the same area again. In some weird way, we know each other.”
The work stirs a mix of emotions for the rescuers, Tanguay said.
“It’s sad. The houses are just rotting now, and people can’t get back to their homes,” he said. “It was sort of a shock. We didn’t expect it to be that bad, and we don’t ever expect it to be that bad.”
But the reunions are an antidote for the despair.
“Locals were so excited to see their pets -- for that moment, all the sadness left,” said Tanguay.
“It’s a good feeling” being able to help, said Vogel.
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between the Globe and Northeastern.