Murphy, a prosperous-looking female tabby cat, likes to be carried around the hockey rink. Sheba, a 16-month-old Rottweiler who won't go on the newspaper but isn't allowed outside for a walk in the hurricane, is panicking at center ice.
Sammy, a large dog of uncertain breed, is about to have puppies. About a dozen rabbits are being fed Purina Rabbit Chow at the far goal crease. Freya, a tiny Australian flying squirrel called a sugar glider, lives in a felt Crown Royal bag and signifies irritation by burbling like a baby getting ready to throw up.
In normal times, the North Charleston Coliseum is the home of the Eastern Hockey League South Carolina Stingrays and the occasional venue for rock concerts, rodeos and other happenings in South Carolina's low country.
But with Hurricane Floyd bearing down, the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals got permission to convert the cavernous arena into the state's first-ever hurricane animal shelter. Late today, with Floyd bearing down and winds gusting above 50 mph, there were nearly 500 animals in residence, each accompanied by at least one human.
South Carolinians are not blase about hurricanes. In a state badly mauled 10 years ago by Hurricane Hugo, massive numbers of people were not interested in riding out this one at home. And with the new animal shelter, they finally have a place to stay with their special loved ones.
"Our house is a little bit off its foundation, so we wanted to evacuate," said Rachael O'Donnell, the owner of Murphy the cat. "But we didn't want to leave town because by the time we got back, everything would have been looted, like the last time. This was perfect."
O'Donnell's previous cat was abandoned to its own devices during Hugo and "ended up pretty near terrified," she said. The high casualty rate of pets lost, drowned or starved by Hugo was the principal reason the SPCA decided to act this time.
"Hugo taught us a lot," said veterinarian Robert Carlson, the SPCA executive director. "If you can't get out, you need pet-friendly shelters." So Tuesday afternoon, the SPCA boxed up about 100 stray dogs of its own, filled a container with 1,000 pounds of pet food, 5,000 newspapers and 500 pounds of cat litter, and came over to the Coliseum, about seven miles off the waterfront and probably able to absorb the worst that Floyd can dish out.
At midafternoon today, the storm knocked out electricity to the Coliseum. Generators restored power, but to conserve fuel the SPCA decided to turn off the lights at 7 p.m., leaving pets and owners to endure the worst of the storm in the dark.
Earlier in the day, however, things were going smoothly. The animals were confined most of the time to plastic traveling kennels or portable cages. They were allowed out only for brief walks and only on a leash or in the arms of an owner.
The ice was covered with fiberboard insulation, but still provided built-in air conditioning for the pets. Some visitors were cold, but others enjoyed it. Zeus, a young Husky, lay luxuriantly on the insulation while being petted by teenage owners Maggie and Sylvia Lewis. Travis, a nine-year-old Saint Bernard and the largest critter in the arena, was sound asleep.
But Cyndi Brown's hedgehogs were "a little cold," and perhaps not as well-behaved as they might have been. Same for the sugar gliders, striped little marsupials that "roll on their backs, spread their legs and shriek" whenever they're displeased. Freya gave a demonstration.
But Brown's degus, Chilean prairie dogs that look a lot like large field mice, were doing just fine, even though they are "natural diabetics" and "can't process sugar." They were eating chinchilla pellets and sweet potatoes.
Brown, a restaurant manager and animal lover, lives in a mobile home--the worst place to be in a hurricane--so she brought her entire entourage to the shelter. Except for the 13-foot Burmese python, which "makes people nervous."
Carlson, the vet, said all the animals "appear to be on their best behavior." Dogs made up the largest share of tenants. Those with masters enjoyed petting, limited play and, at times, walks. Sheba, owned by a retired police officer who slept in her van in the Coliseum parking lot, finally got to go outside.
Max, a two-year-old Rottweiler, needed to jump up and down and chew on a plastic bottle for exercise. The SPCA's homeless dogs, used to captivity, wagged their tails and smiled at anyone who looked at them: "Take me! Take me!"
Cats were stroked, birds chirped, the sugar gliders looked cute and made unpleasant noises and the rabbits did virtually nothing. Newspaper, forming a public latrine at center ice, was soiled and regularly bagged.
The only rule, Carlson said, is that every animal had to bring a human. The problem, he added, is that "we didn't think about it the other way." That changed when one lizard showed up Tuesday night with nine humans. "We suggested they go to a people shelter and try to sneak him in."
In fact, Carlson said, the human accommodations are lousy. Owners had to bring their own food, bedding and toiletries and could not sleep on the rink floor beside their pets. Instead, they had to bed down in the narrow passageway surrounding the ice. Some people brought air mattresses or patio loungers. Others slept on folding chairs and a few sat in the Coliseum's seats.
"It's a nice hard floor, but I'm all right," said garbage truck driver Frank Porco, who is minding Moe, his Irish wolfhound, so he could be near his wife, hospitalized in Charleston with pneumonia. "We might have tried to ride this one out at home if my wife wasn't sick, but probably not. Hugo was bad, and this one here's nothing to play with."
CAPTION: Jontez Ward, 14 of Charleston, S.C., holds pet iguana at the North Charleston Coliseum, which the local SPCA converted into a storm shelter for animals.