Katrina's Stranded Pets Spur Massive Aid Effort

Stu Hutson
for National Geographic News
September 9, 2005
Photo Gallery: Pets, Hurricane Katrina's Other Victims >>

In the initial aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the welfare of Gulf Coast pets took a back seat to human safety.

But on September 2 members of one of the largest grassroots animal-rescue efforts in U.S. history started arriving on the scene to save the storm's animal victims.

The campaign is a joint effort between the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), as well as dozens of local organizations and thousands of volunteers from across the country.

"There was some squabbling between the groups at first as to who should do what," said Diane Alberts, president of the Florida Association of Kennel Clubs. The association is lending supplies, workers, and perspective from its experience with pet rescue after Hurricane Andrew blasted southern Florida in 1992.

"But now everyone is working as one extremely impressive group," she said.

Efforts are spread throughout the hurricane-ravaged areas of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. Some of the most compelling tales, however, are taking place in the flooded city of New Orleans.

So far more than 1,500 of the city's animals have been rescued and treated by veterinarians, said Andrew Rowan, executive vice president for the HSUS. But thousands more remain, he said, and the days left before they starve or die from dehydration are numbered.

The Hunt

Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in nearby Gonzales, Louisiana, has been serving as a base of operations for the rescue effort and as a makeshift animal shelter, according to Renee Bafalis, an HSUS rescue worker in New Orleans.

Typically used for 4-H events and rodeos, the center's nearly 1,000 horse stalls make it the perfect refuge for rescued pets, Bafalis says. But Lamar-Dixon has already reached full capacity for comfortably holding animals, said Laura Maloney, executive director of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Maloney, who is the head coordinator for all animal-rescue efforts in New Orleans, says the rescue team is now searching for nearby facilities that can temporarily hold animals.

Meanwhile, rescue workers continue to meet at the center every day at 6 a.m. to pile into a caravan of pickup trucks. The caravan makes the hour-long trip into New Orleans on little-known back roads—sometimes going off-road to bypass lines of cars that are trying to get into the city.

Just outside the city limits the workers divide up into teams. Typically, three teams will search the areas on dry ground, while several other teams will venture into flooded areas in boats.

The teams' daily destinations are planned according to calls received the night before from residents who were forced to leave pets behind, Bafalis says.

"We go where we know there are pets, just picking up any [others] we find along the way," she said. "Usually we get stopped by people that will tell us about a dog or a cat they've found."

Sometimes the teams come across something a little trickier. On September 7 a boating team rescued a fully grown potbellied pig. The only way to get the large swine into the boat without capsizing the craft was to build a makeshift floating ramp on the spot.

Other unusual finds include a couple of chinchillas and 16 dogs that had been left in the Louisiana State University Medical Center, Bafalis says.

Most of the dogs were fine and were running freely through the hospital's upper halls. Two, however, had been tied to railings on the first level and had hung themselves trying to jump over a fence to get away from the rising water.

Wading Through

State officials have given the animal-rescue workers permission to enter evacuated homes. The task typically takes a good portion of the teams' days, Bafalis says.

The flood-region teams have the roughest job, though. And wading through toxic sludge past floating excrement and dead bodies sometimes isn't even the worst part. An animal found stranded in the water is more likely to be sick and dehydrated, and therefore more vicious to strangers.

Still, a prevalent rumor that police have been authorized to shoot stray dogs that may be feral is completely untrue, Bafalis says.

"The police, National Guard, firefighters—everyone out here cares about the animals as much as we do," she said. "They go out of their way to help us. Just today a police officer told us about two rottweilers and a German shepherd in an evacuated building."

"We're getting a lot of support from celebrities who are donating crates to move the pets—and food and things like that," added Maloney. "Just yesterday [actress] Kirstie Alley was here."

Not all the rescued pets had been abandoned. Many of the residents who stayed in New Orleans, despite the evacuation order, did so because they didn't want to leave their animals. Animals aren't allowed in evacuation shelters, although some people still managed to sneak in with small pets in garbage bags or luggage.

The teams are responsible for collecting pets from owners who are now being escorted by police out of the city.

"We take a photo of their pet and a photo of them," Bafalis said. "We try to let them know that the animal is going to be safe and happy until they are ready to come back and collect them."

The rescued animals are first taken to the Jefferson Feed and Garden Store in Jefferson, Louisiana. The building houses a large veterinary clinic, where each pet goes through a triage system before being ferried back to the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.

Just before 6 p.m.—the Louisiana-mandated curfew—the teams regroup at the expo center. Each pet is photographed and entered into a database along with a description of the animal and where it was found.

The animal photos soon will be displayed on the Web site People looking for their pets may also enter their information into an existing database on the site.

"Right now, we're having about 20 reunions between pets and owners each day. Hopefully, that number will go up quite a bit when we get up on Petfinder," said Maloney, the Louisiana SPCA director.

"Yesterday a woman came in distraught and just absolutely certain that she wouldn't be able to find her Chihuahua," Maloney said. "As soon as she started looking, this little white head pops out from one of the cages and starts barking like mad. That's what makes this worth it."

And for the pets that don't find their owners, the rescue team is committed to providing safe and happy new homes.

"[No animals] will be euthanized," Maloney said. "With the amount of support we're getting from across the country, I can't imagine not finding a home for every single one of these animals."

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