A home is torn in half by a tornado that went through Joplin, Mo. (Courtesy Valerie Schomburg / June 14, 2011)

For Valerie Schomburg, animals are more than a job.

She has worked with the Newport Beach Police Department's animal control unit for 10 years, but often uses vacation days to help animals who have been separated from their families because of natural disasters.

Most recently, she went to tornado-devastated Joplin, Mo., on May 26 through June 3 with the American Humane Assn. She and other volunteers stayed in an association-provided, 82-foot tractor-trailer.

Some 290 pets were reunited with their owners while she was there, and 900 were taken into the association's care.

Four days were spent looking for pets, which sometimes meant searching amid rubble and debris.

One pet owner who contacted the organization was worried about the well-being of a black Labrador retriever.

The Lab, who was discovered under debris near the single-family home, was trapped for eight days with a tree branch in his shoulder. Volunteer veterinarians treated him and he was reunited with his owners.

Schomburg spent three days at the "cat barn," a warehouse for lostcats or forcats whose owners were temporarily unable to care for them.

She remembers one woman who visited the cat barn daily for five days in search of her pet. On the sixth day, she and her cat were reunited and the woman dropped to her knees.

Schomburg's trip was her eighth with the organization. Her first was after Hurricane Katrina, where she met Maxine, a pit-spaniel mix.

Maxine had been on the streets of New Orleans for two months after the 2005 hurricane and was riddled with worms and diseases. Schomburg found her spooked and hiding behind a house.

"She got under my skin," she said.

Schomburg brought her home with the intention of keeping her for three months until her original owners were found. But Maxine remained unclaimed, and by then Schomburg's husband, Tom, was smitten.

On other deployments, Schomburg has helped after wildfires in Texas and flooding in Iowa, as well as with puppy mill seizures.

For Schomburg, the loss of a house or car doesn't compare to the loss of a pet, but reuniting families and their companions is a special type of service.

"When you find a pet, there's hope to go on," she said.