Humane Society of Highlands County still recovering from Irma

Two months after Hurricane Irma spun through the center of Florida, its effects are still being felt at the Humane Society of Highlands County, from downed trees to an increase in rescue animals.

Judy Spiegel, President of the Humane Society, made the tough decision to leave her home and stay with the animals at her shelter on Haywood Taylor Boulevard in Sebring the night of the hurricane along with a volunteer.

"They were all very frightened, so we were here to kind of keep them calm," said Spiegel.

Just a couple of days before Irma's path shifted towards Highlands County, Spiegel said she called off plans to bring several rescue dogs to the facility from Texas.

"We were getting 40 animals from them that week," said Spiegel.

Her last-minute decision may have saved the dogs' lives. The old outdoor kennels where staff planned to house the dogs were badly damaged in the storm.

Speigel said she believes a tornado touched down in the area, uprooting a tree and lifting some of the kennels from the ground as it fell. The roof was completed ripped off of another row of kennels.

Every animal at the Humane Society made it through the storm safely. In the days following Irma's departure, the shelter was bombarded with 130 new rescues.

"Unfortunately, Highlands County did not have any pet-friendly shelters, so that really hurt," explained Speigel. "Some people were just older, frail and just couldn't stay in their mobile homes.

A lot of them said they didn't know what to do, had nowhere to put them, so they just set [their pets] free," Speigel added.

In the weeks to come, staff members took to Facebook to plead with residents for help with find the animals' owners or a new home.

Janice Ortiz is one of many people who stepped in to assist, adopting a small dog she named Mr. Junior.

"I've had several pets that I've adopted through the Humane Society. I have a total of 8 dogs and a cat," said Ortiz. "They're just so grateful to have homes and be loved."

"When one goes out, one comes in, so we are always at capacity," said Speigel. "We have had over 100 adoptions since the storm."

The nearly 40 downed trees and broken fence surrounding the property are evidence that the Humane Society is still recovering from Hurricane Irma.

Speigel said it's expected to take $18,000 to repair the fence and several months to clear out the toppled trees.

The Humane Society's biggest annual Halloween fundraiser called the "Terror Trail" had to be cancelled due to most of the props getting damaged in the storm. They're now planning to host an auction in January to try to make up for the loss.

For more information about the Humane Society of Highlands County, visit