As more and more floodwater poured over the levee near his farm on the banks of the Illinois River, Charles Craver realized that he would have to find a way to evacuate his 174 rare Arabian horses, even though several of the mares were foaling.
Part of his horse-breeding farm in rural Hillview, Ill., was already under water and the rest of his fields were saturated from unrelenting rains. He said he feared that the levee would give way entirely, burying the farm under 12 feet of water.
"The foals would not have been able to swim out, and the mares would have stayed with the foals so they probably would have lost most of the herd," said Colleen Wilson, a riding instructor from Springfield, Ill., who helped rescue the animals. "That's what we were fighting against."
The challenge of evacuating so many horses as water inched up to cover the only road out would have been daunting enough. But these horses had never been off the farm or in trailers.
"Imagine what it's like when 1,000 pounds looks you in the eye and says: 'No, I'm not getting into the trailer,' " Wilson said.
The horses finally were saved with the help of a little animal psychology. Rescuers moved the 400-pound foals first, then used them to lure the mares into the trailers. The stallions were a harder sell. But after many hours of excruciating work, the animals were taken to safety.
As the story demonstrates, human beings are not the only victims of the floods that have swamped much of the Midwest. Up and down the flooded Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers, wildlife, livestock, pets and even zoo animals have suffered. And farmers, animal lovers and government workers have gone to great lengths to save them.
For the wild animals, the biggest threat, ironically, can come from the existence of the man-made levees that have created the habitats in which they live, officials say. The barriers can give them a false sense of security. Then, suddenly, the levees burst, trapping the animals as the raging waters rise. That happened when a levee broke on the Missouri River on Saturday and enlarged the flooded area in St. Charles County, north of St. Louis. Twelve deer were rescued from a railroad trestle and moved to higher ground by Coast Guard and Humane Society professionals.
Generally though, wildlife is relatively self-sufficient and will move on its own to higher ground as water rises, officials say.
"Wildlife has a natural instinct for self-preservation," said Mike Schroer of the Missouri Department of Conservation. "Most of the wildlife will save itself. We are not expecting any long-term effect on wildlife from the flooding."
Domestic animals, on the other hand, are far less able to fend for themselves in a crisis. While some pet and livestock owners in threatened areas moved their animals to safety with time to spare, others were caught off guard by the enormity of the disaster.
When the floodwaters chased Joe Czaia off his farm near the Illinois River town of Nutwood, Ill., 10 days ago, he was certain that his hogs and sheep would be safe in his barn, which sits on high ground.
But when the rain kept falling and the river kept rising, he said he realized that his livestock was in danger if he did not work fast. When the chocolate-milk-colored water started seeping into the barn, he borrowed some boat docks from the state Conservation Department, nailed them together and placed a pen on top.
The hogs allowed themselves to be prodded into the floating corral, but the sheep would have no part of the plan. They had to be caught one by one and taken out by boat.
Rita Brumm of the Missouri Humane Society, whose representatives have saved 39 animals in the last several days, said that rescuing livestock and pets in flooded areas is a complicated and time-consuming undertaking that produces no shortage of surprises.
The Coast Guard transported Humane Society workers and a distressed farmer four miles through St. Charles County in a flat-bottomed boat in an effort to save three cows and a bull. They had planned to walk the livestock out on a railroad levee, but by the time they got there, the water was already as high as a cow's belly, making the trek impossible.
Instead, they built a platform several feet above the expected peak of the floodwaters in the barn and left an ample supply of food and water for the animals.
"We weren't able to rescue them, but by making this safe haven for them, we were keeping them alive," Brumm said. "They could have drowned."
While they were working on the structure, a bloodhound swam by. When he heard the human voices he headed straight for them.
"He had a look on his face that said: 'Thank goodness I found you,' " Brumm said.
On another occasion, Coast Guard reservists patrolling the flooded region approached a nearly submerged house when one of them spotted some cats on a roof. After investigating, the reservists realized that they would need help. Contacting headquarters by radio, they reported "approximately 3-0 cats" in the house, to which a surprised colleague responded in disbelief: "3-0?"
"That's right," was the reply.
Residents checking on their submerged property also found surprises.
When Jenni Boddeker returned last week to inspect the family boat business in inundated Niota, Ill., she found a dog chained to a pole, paddling in the water.
"He must have been paddling all night," she said.
Niota's floodwaters are mixed with gasoline and diesel fuel, apparently because the dry ground had been saturated with petroleum products dumped long ago by a pipeline company facility in town. Because the dog was coated with the stuff, they named him 'Slick.'
Graceful deer, friendly house pets and docile livestock are not the only animals disturbed by the flood. In St. Charles County, frogs cover almost every dry spot. Some were even found resting one afternoon on the backs of two grubby-looking dogs sleeping in the sun on the front stoop of a partly submerged house.
When floods swamped the Des Moines water treatment plant 11 days ago, it deprived the city's zoo of fresh water. Almost immediately, bacteria counts rose to dangerous levels for penguins and sea lions at the zoo, and officials pleaded with the National Guard to find fresh water for the animals' pools.
The Guard dutifully arrived to carry out "Operation Sea Lion" and pumped fresh water from huge tankers to the pool.
"You could tell by the way the sea lions and penguins were acting that they really appreciated the water," said zookeeper Ken Ball.
But not all the animal stories have had happy endings.
Many people who left cats behind, along with supplies of food and water, thought that their animals would be safe. In some cases they returned, however, to find their pets missing--or worse.
In one case, a Missouri Humane Society worker accompanied one resident to check on her three cats. "We found two cats, but we don't know what happened to the third," Brumm said.
And even though the rescue of the Arabian horses was a success, the disaster took its toll on the prize herd.
So worried has Craver been about the horses that he has been sleeping in his car in a pasture where 84 of the mares are temporarily resettled. Before dawn Wednesday, he awoke early to look for a mare that was about to foal. When he flipped on his flashlight, the startled horses stampeded. Three of the mares were killed and a fourth suffered a broken leg in the commotion.