By Julie Ball
ASHEVILLE ó Asheville firefighter Karen Shuart has had rescue training.
But itís her love of animals that is sending Shuart to the disaster-stricken Gulf Coast.
Shuart, along with two employees from the Asheville Humane Society, headed to Mississippi this week to help out at a shelter for displaced animals.
"I love helping people as well. Thatís my job. But I have that special place in my heart for animals," Shuart said. "Iím glad I can do something."
Shelly Moore, executive director of the Asheville Humane Society, and Andrea Byrd, animal caretaker at the local shelter, left with volunteer Shuart to a shelter set up about 20 miles south of Hattiesburg, Miss.
The three are replacing a team that included Asheville Humane Society employee Mark Sokolowski.
Sokolowski was in the area for more than a week.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, animal welfare groups have been working to find and rescue the many animals left homeless by the flooding and the stormís destruction.
"We know that there are thousands (of animals displaced by the storm), but I donít know how many are alive out of that because time is running out," said Melissa Seide Rubin, vice president of field and disaster services for the Humane Society of the United States.
Rubin said animals received at temporary shelters are being photographed and their photos will be placed on a Web site ó www.petfinder.com ó where evacuees can look for lost pets.
The Humane Society of the United States on its Web site says more than 3,800 animals have been rescued so far.
"Right now, they have about 400 (animals at the shelter near Hattiesburg). They are bringing more animals in every day," Moore said.
Moore said sheís not sure what sheíll be doing once she gets to the shelter.
Shuart, who volunteers with the Animal Compassion Network, hopes to put her rescue skills to good use.
But she is also preparing for what she expects to be an emotional strain.
"I know that I will probably see some things that will affect me, but Iíll have to deal with it. I will deal with it," Shuart said. "Iím sure it will be emotionally challenging."
The Animal Compassion Network also has been working to line up foster homes for animals displaced by the storm.
As of Wednesday, the group had about 100 foster homes lined up, according to Eileen Bouressa, executive director of Animal Compassion Network. The first of the displaced animals began arriving in Asheville on Thursday morning.
The response from local residents has been overwhelming, according to Bouressa. The Animal Compassion Network will cover the costs of providing a foster home for the animals.
And Bouressa said foster homes will likely be needed for months to come.
"I think itís safe to say even three months from now, weíre going to be needing foster homes," Bouressa said.
Animal Haven of Asheville also has offered to take in displaced animals including farm animals, but like the Animal Compassion Network, officials arenít sure when theyíll get the animals.
"They are finding so many of them (farm animals) also," said Barbara Bellows, director of Animal Haven.
Rubin said the disaster highlights the need for pet owners to have a disaster plan that includes a safe place for their pets.
And she added, "weíve got to start establishing more pet friendly shelters (for storm evacuees)."