By Peter Szekely
(Reuters) - The floods that have devastated large swaths of Nebraska and Iowa since late last week left house pets homeless, inflicted an unknown toll on livestock and led to several daring water rescues of animals from dogs to horses.
Rescuers in the Omaha area, where the Platte, Elkhorn and Missouri rivers began spilling over their banks last week, have been working overtime to save dogs and cats along with their owners, sometimes at risk to themselves.
"It becomes very difficult and it does put our rescuers in harms way, because you have animals that can potentially try to bite or fight,” Rescue Lieutenant Jami Mitchell of Waterloo Fire/Rescue in Nebraska said by phone on Tuesday.
Along with the 189 adults and eight children pulled from flooded homes in Waterloo, about 20 miles west of Omaha, Mitchell tallied 87 dogs, eight cats, one rabbit, two birds, two hamsters and 26 horses.
"We’ve had some families that have had up to six dogs that were loaded on an air boat at the same time as the families being evacuated from flood waters,” she said.
The rain- and snow-melt-induced flooding in the middle of the country's farm belt has killed at least four people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, killing untold numbers of livestock.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told Fox Business Network on Tuesday that the governors of Nebraska and Iowa told him that up to 1 million calves may have been killed.
But Nebraska Agriculture Department Director Steve Wellman said there were no reliable numbers of animals lost to flooding.
Ranchers, some of whom have used air boats to bring feed to flood-stranded herds, are bracing for the possibility of additional problems with their livestock once the waters recede, Nebraska Cattlemen spokeswoman Talia Goes said.
"Standing in the cold water and being cold certainly isn’t good for the health of the animal,” she said by phone.
Two Omaha area shelters for people evacuated from their homes are letting animal owners keep their pets during their stay, easing the strain on animal shelters and the stress on people forced to flee their homes.
"It's helped the folks staying here; they've been through enough," said Josh Murray, spokesman for the Omaha/Council Bluffs Metro Region Office of the American Red Cross.
Nebraska Humane Society Vice President Mark Langan said a dozen horses have been led out of raging flood waters along with dogs, cats and other pets that the agency is sheltering.
“We are nearing capacity, but we always figure out a way to find room,” said Langan.
In some cases, the flooding has uncovered animal hoarders, such as a house on the outskirts of Omaha where teams pulled out 75 cats and dogs, Muddy Paws Second Chance Rescue President Terri Larson said.
"Right now, we’re doing a water rescue for eight feral dogs and a couple of birds,” Larson said by phone. "It’s been crazy.”
(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Karl Plume and Tom Polensek in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)