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To the Rescue: Saving Animals From Disaster Zones

For retired entrepreneur and veteran Michael Merrill, helping pets in peril around the world gives life meaning

spinner image michael merrill holding a foster dog named maggie
Michael Merrill with foster pup Maggie.
James Jackman

Driving around after a hurricane with 10 dogs and 17 cats in the back of a rental van has its challenges, especially when you’re the guy who’s allergic to cats. After Hurricane Florence in 2018, my then-girlfriend, Susan, and I were doing hurricane rescue missions, transporting animals from an overwhelmed shelter in North Carolina to a humane society in Georgia. A mile from the shelter, a bridge was underwater, so we made a six-hour detour there and back, eventually arriving in Georgia at 5 in the morning.

I didn’t always rescue animals. When I got out of the Army, I started a cellphone company, which morphed into an internet company, and later I built mobile apps. You make money, you lose money, but at the end of the day, nobody cares. Somebody was always unhappy, and often it was me. I felt like I had to do something more important with my life, so in my early 50s, I started Florida Urgent Rescue, a nonprofit animal rescue. I figured we’d help three or four shelter dogs a month that were on death row and find them foster homes. That turned into thousands of rescues, including some of the toughest cases. One example was a dog named Maverick, who came in from the Bahamas with three broken legs and a fractured hip. After surgery and countless rehab visits, he’s recovered and adopted. I feel like this is the most important thing I’ve done since I got out of the Army.

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With our team of volunteers and foster families, F.U.R. has rescued animals in 13 natural disasters. Last year, we made three trips to Ukraine, working with partners around the world to save 96 dogs and 34 cats. We also reunited people with their pets and helped refugee families evacuating with pets. When the Russians invaded, most shelters and veterinary offices shut down. Some dogs we saw were locked up, with no food for weeks. One seriously injured older dog was in such bad shape I knew he wouldn’t survive the trip, and, sadly, he didn’t. But at least we fed him and made him comfortable in the end.

spinner image michael merrill looking for animals to rescue in the turkey earthquake
F.U.R. hunting for pets in Turkey.
Courtesy Michael Merrill

Rescuing animals after the Turkey earthquake in February was a little different. Many people weren’t allowed back into their homes, so they’d post pictures of their missing pets on the Telegram app. We’d go through the crumbling buildings and trap the cats. I can’t tell you how happy these folks were when we called to say, “We got ’em.”

Susan and I got married in 2021. She knows how meaningful this work is for me. We actually got married twice: once in a big ceremony for family and friends and once with just us, our daughter and four of our dogs. ​

Michael Merrill, 61, is a former U.S. Army captain and tech-company entrepreneur. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida.

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