We've packed up a week's worth of clothing, food, drinks and camping gear. We arrive at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, Louisiana at 8 pm. This is the staging area for much of the animal rescue operation. It's a huge livestock and exposition center with barns the size of baseball diamonds. It's located about 50 miles from N.O. because there's no place big enough there that is functioning. We meet with the Humane Society of the United States leaders to find out what to do. HSUS and the Louisiana SPCA are working with the Army Veterinary Corp under FEMA. FEMA has decided that there could not be any more trapped animals found alive after Oct 6 and so they're shutting down here. The only job they have for us is walking dogs until all the dogs are shipped out to shelters and rescue groups. There were about 2000 animals here at its peak. Only about 300 remain, the rest having been shipped to rescue groups across the country. All told, estimates are that about 5000 animals were rescued and processed at this location. Of the remaining 300, 239 are dogs. There are three Labs, two Rottweilers, one Golden Retriever, one Husky, one Shar Pei, and 231 Pit Bulls. For awhile, this was the largest animal shelter in the world.
FEMA has informed us that no new animals will be brought into this shelter, and that this will be strictly enforced.
Frustrated, we start talking to other people who tell us there is another group still doing search and rescue, although they are not "official" and do not answer directly to FEMA. This group is 1800SAVEAPET, and David and Pia are running the operation. The day after it was proclaimed that no live animals would be found, this group found three dogs locked in houses and still alive. We decide this is the group we want to work with. Its control center is a large Prowler trailer with Wi-Fi internet access, getting daily updates of people requesting rescue of their animals. In the days following Katrina, a hotline was implemented whereby people who had left animals in their houses could call and give their addresses for rescuers to try to save them. At midnight, there is still a team of four people on computers logging calls and plotting the maps for the next day's rescue teams. It's a staggering thought that they're only getting to some of these requests that were logged in mid-Sept. When you consider that 800,000 people evacuated this city and on any given day there are about 300 animal rescue workers going house-to-house, it's amazing that they get to them at all. More amazing still that live animals are coming out of houses more than a month after Katrina. But we know we're running out of time. Every hour another animal dies.
We meet at the Prowler at 5:30 a.m. to get our search and rescue maps of houses to search. There are fifteen teams of two rescuers. Iaon and I are working together and we get an area in northern N.O., which is adjacent to the break in the 17th St Canal. We have a list of 21 houses to search, that people have reported pets were left inside before Katrina. We try to be sympathetic for these people, even though we all think they should have taken their pets. As we find out during our stay here, it just wasn't possible for some people. Many people left their pets with a week's worth of food and water, thinking they would be back in two or three days. Most of these people now have virtually no houses left. The shells are still standing, but there is nothing worth saving except the animals.
David and Pia are larger than life. Their skill in making things happen is unlike anything I've ever seen. David's skill in people handling and making order out of chaos is astounding. He would have made a great military commander. They tell us that they have had to make new plans since FEMA will not allow any more animals to be brought into Lamar-Dixon. They have arranged for an air-conditioned semi truck to rendezvous at six p.m. with all the rescue teams in downtown N.O. and take any rescued animals to Best Friends animal rescue in Tylertown, MS. Iaon and I will be doing triage at the rendezvous point, although we have no drugs or medical equipment. FEMA had told us they did not want us to bring anything as they had all they needed; FEMA is not sharing with SAVEAPET.
Our triage center is the parking area of an abandoned gas station in the center of New Orleans. A lot of debris has been cleared so the 18-wheeler can get in, but the building itself, like everything else here, is just a shell.
As we drive past the ruined Superdome, there is a corpse of a brown Pit Bull laying in the median. We drive through neighborhood after neighborhood of destroyed houses. There are people working to get life back to normal, but there are no businesses open. People are allowed back into the city to work on their houses and businesses by day, but must leave at night. We drive by a convenience store, look in and see the entire contents of the store washed up against the counter and the windows. You can see the water marks at about eye-level on the outside of the houses. Trees smashed through rooftops and walls, cars sitting in trees. Some of these houses are still locked up, but many are completely open, the wood doors rotting. Spray-painted codes on the outsides of the homes indicate whether rescuers for people or animals have been there, what they found and what they did. Many houses had paint that said things like "SPCA 9/26 two dogs rescued" or "HSUS 10/01 one dog dead." A few said "Marines 9/15 one dead body, two dead cats." There is still a large military presence here, although we have not seen armed soldiers.
It takes us only about four hours to do our route, because this is in a neighborhood where people were allowed to return last week. Several of these pets have been accounted for, we learn as we talk to owners. Some are dead, some found alive when the owners came home, some taken by rescuers and some never found at all. They may have escaped in the floodwaters, but were most likely drowned and washed away.
As horrible as things look on the outside, they look ten times worse on the inside. We slog through houses looking for animals in thick, toxic mud that weighs down our boots. The mold and stench require a mask to even enter the houses. We have to move furniture from in front of the doors to open them. Imagine flood water pouring into a room with great rushing force, turning over heavy furniture and pinning it against a wall. Then the water fills the room, and everything that can float rises and turns heavy side down. As the water recedes, everything sinks from wherever it happens to be. Tables upside down on top of couches and refrigerators, beds sideways against a wall, contents from every cabinet scattered around, and all of it covered with a mixture of dirty water, oil, sewage and garbage.
People stop us on the street and say thank you; some tell us of animals they know need rescuing. One of the addresses where a dog was supposed to have been left has a locked and bolted door. It's on the second floor of an apartment building. We don't hear any sign of a dog, but if there were one it would be too weak to even bark at this point, so we decide to break in. Rescue teams are issued a huge crowbar and a sledgehammer for this purpose. Iaon breaks open the door with a crowbar. I have to admit this speaks to my inner juvenile delinquent and I have to laugh. There is no sign of a dog; one window is broken out, so either the dog jumped out the window on to the staircase, or the owner was able to retrieve it and did not inform us. We leave having opened every door in the place, because we've been told people left animals in closets thinking it was the safest place to be.
We head over to the triage point to switch from search and rescue to medical mode.
This is hot, sweaty, dirty work, and some of these people have been doing it for two weeks or more. Any live animal brought out causes the adrenalin to flow. As we're examining the animals brought in by each rescue team, we hear excitement and cheering for the latest team to arrive. A Miniature Pinscher cross has been found alive inside a house. The rescuer gently hands him to me for an exam, and I find a gray-muzzled, emaciated but happy dog. An elderly single woman who was forcibly evacuated without her dog owned him. The best she could do for him was to lock him in her bedroom closet with a week's worth of food and water. She called in her address on Sept 10, and rescuers had just gotten to the house today. He had been drinking the disgusting reddish-brown flood water to stay alive, and had not eaten for three weeks. Yet, he was able to stand up, wag his tail and walk a few steps when the closet door opened and he was freed from his dark, rancid cell. He went to Best Friends sanctuary for a complete evaluation, to be released to his anxious owner.
Iaon and I finish the triage for eighteen animals. It doesn't take long, since we have nothing to treat them with. We just make notes to help the people at Best Friends provide the care the animal needs. There are some animals we're not sure will make the two-hour journey alive.
We head back to Lamar-Dixon at 8 pm, having been out since 6 a.m., exhausted but feeling as though we've helped. I'm determined to get some medical supplies for triage tomorrow, and I approach the Army Vet guys and HSUS. They finally decide I can have four bags of IV fluids and four drip sets.
Alex, one of the Prowler team, takes us aside and asks if we can evaluate a dog. One rescue team stayed out late to look for a dog they were certain was inside a home, so they missed the truck to Best Friends. Since we aren't allowed to bring any more animals here to L-D, they sneak a very large Mastiff-Pit Bull cross past the security guard by hiding her under bags of dog food in their truck. She's too exhausted to give herself away by making noise.
They bring the dog into our tent, where we find an emaciated brown dog that should probably weigh 110 lbs, but actually weighs about 80. She's very reserved, not having had human contact for over a month. She's dehydrated, and we give her a liter of saline solution under the skin. Four people are rubbing her head and comforting her while this happens, and she starts to relax. As she becomes more comfortable, she starts to ooze her way onto our borrowed queen-size mattress. As dirty and smelly as she is, we don't have the heart to tell her no, and she stretches out. She sleeps in our tent tonight. Her owner has been contacted, and he's driving from Houston to pick her up tomorrow.
Iaon helps do some data entry on the animals found today, and we fall exhausted into bed without even showering.
Since we'll be doing triage again today starting at 2 pm, we don't go out on a long route. We get a list of four buildings where animals were supposed to have been left. As we pass the Superdome, the corpse of the Pit Bull is still there, bloated in the heat. The first address is a hardware store where the owner said he left his four dogs. We find the Marines have already visited the place, and their codes say nothing about animals. Since we know this is the dogs' last chance, we must break in to be sure. The hardware store owner had every necessary piece to secure the place, so there's no getting in on the ground floor. However, he missed something. We find a ladder and break a window on the second floor and crawl in. The crowbar is a necessity of life for rescuers, and is affectionately known as "the key to the city."
There's no sign any animal has ever been there. No poop, no urine, no footprints, no dead animal smells, nothing. Puzzling. We leave the owner a note: "HSUS received a call that dogs were locked in here. Tried to leave the building secure. Sorry about your window-Iaon."
Next door to the hardware store is an animal hospital. As is typical here where space is at a premium, only a four-foot wide alley separates the back doors of the hardware store and the animal hospital. The animal hospital is completely destroyed, the roof has caved in and the water has wasted the inside of the building. This vet will likely not be back here anytime soon. The back door is wide open, so I go in. I find treasure! Like most vets, this one kept injectable drugs, IV fluids, and treatment supplies in cabinets at eye level, so they are clean and usable. I load up bags of fluids, antibiotics, injectable drugs, IV lines and catheters into our canvas bags. I feel like I've just won the lottery.
Now I have a theory on what happened to the hardware store dogs. I hope that the vet heard them barking and took them with him when he evacuated all his own patients. There were no animal bodies in the hospital cages, so he obviously took his responsibility seriously enough to be sure they got out.
We head over to the rendezvous point and set up the back of the Jeep as a triage center. People are amazed that we have most of the necessary medical supplies. We are able to treat those desperately ill or injured animals before they make the two-hour trip to Best Friends. It's a good day-nineteen dogs and six cats are saved today and make the trip.
We return to Lamar Dixon to hear an announcement from David. FEMA has declared that all animals will be out of this facility by Monday Oct 10, no matter how this is accomplished. The only animals remaining tonight are 82 Pit Bulls, so we fear the worst for them. Euthanasia has been discussed as an option. David and Pia are determined that these dogs, who survived Katrina, survived Rita, and survived for weeks in the worst conditions imaginable without anyone caring for them, would NOT be euthanized. David has been working feverishly all day on a plan. All 82 Pit Bulls will be flown to a Pit Bull rescue in California tomorrow called Villalobos Pit Bull Rescue. It will be expensive and difficult. Most of us remaining volunteers will be needed to transport them to the airport. We are to meet at 5 a.m. to find out if there will be a transport truck or if we have to carry them in our vehicles to make the 45-minute trip to the airport. Rescue teams will be dispatched into the city again tomorrow after loading these dogs into airplanes. David and Pia do not yet know where these new animals will go, but they are firm in their position that we will not abandon live animals as long as we can function.
5 a.m. We're off and running like a herd of blind gerbils. The relatively few remaining volunteers all meet for David and a representative from HSUS to decide who is going to do what; a collaborative effort between the Prowlers (my nickname for David and Pia's group) and HSUS. Iaon and I are assigned to accompany a semi truck to the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, MS. This is a minimum-security prison that has been housing about 100-200 dogs, the overflow from Lamar-Dixon Expo Center. Thirty of the Pit Bulls from L-D are to be taken by another rescue group, so thirty dogs from the prison have been selected to fill their places on the airplane to the Villalobos, California Pit Bull Rescue group. We load crates onto the semi and take off for the one-hour drive to the prison.
Of course, we get lost because we have no map and terrible verbal directions (I'm navigating, so it can't be my fault), thus the herd of blind gerbils analogy. Two cars and a semi truck driving around the countryside of southern Mississippi looking for the right back roads to the prison is pretty much like that.
We find our way, make up some time with Iaon doing some Grand Prix driving (the truck driver was working to keep up), and finally arrive only about twenty minutes late. A combination of animal rescue volunteers and prison inmates identify, round up and crate the thirty dogs who are to fly. We load them up and take off for Baton Rouge Airport, about 40 minutes away. We find a beautiful, sleek cargo jet that has been chartered to carry these 82 dogs. We load them stacked two high the entire length of the plane. Unfortunately, we find out that one of the dogs taken from the prison is half of a bonded pair that was not supposed to be separated from its friend. Iaon and I are elected to off-load the dog and take him back to the prison. Other team members stay to watch the plane take off, with Pia accompanying them. We reunite the dog with his buddy and head back to Lamar-Dixon. It's now 1 p.m. and we have to check in at L-D and then go back to downtown New Orleans to do triage. While we were shuttling dogs to the airport, other rescue teams have been out in the field. We set up at the triage point and hope that live animals show up.
The field teams start arriving at about 4 p.m. Once again, live animals have been found in closed houses. A team has found a German Shepherd puppy in a bathroom, and she has survived by drinking out of a leaky tub faucet. The water was turned back on in New Orleans about ten days ago, and she has managed to find the first source of uncontaminated water available to her in almost three weeks. She is gaunt but undefeated, maintaining her happy self and showing her gratitude to her rescuers. The boost provided by this rescue gives all the teams renewed energy.
One team finds a cat sitting on a front porch. As soon as the cat sees rescuers, he limps valiantly toward them, dragging a rear leg that has been crushed so badly the broken ends of the anklebones are protruding and crusted with dirt. The foot is swollen almost beyond recognition, and the leg needs to be amputated. I use a sedative we found at the destroyed animal hospital and debride the wound, apply a dressing and give him an antibiotic injection. I send him onto the truck bound for Best Friends with a notation that we will take the cat back to Florida with us unless someone claims him.
All told, a total of nine dogs and three cats are brought to the triage station and loaded up for the two-hour trek to Best Friends. A pretty good day.
We arrive back at L-D just in time to wolf down dinner and attend the 9 p.m. planning meeting where David will decide what we'll do tomorrow. He's determined that we will continue to do search and rescue until no more live animals are being found, so we'll head out early in the morning to go house-to-house again, and then do triage in the afternoon. This seems to be the routine for us.
We find out at the meeting that the charter plane on which the dogs were flown has been provided by a wealthy individual named Bill McLaughlin, at a cost of nearly $50,000. I don't know who this man is, but I will find out and write him a personal thank you note.
This huge "Air Evac" operation makes the local evening news here. We watch a streaming webcast here at the Prowler and see footage of Iaon loading dog crates onto the plane.
The Prowlers are relentless. They survive on five hours sleep per night, and work constantly when they're awake. They never lose sight of their goal, which is to save as many animals as possible. But, after the nine o'clock meetings, they start to get a little silly and they let slip a little how badly sleep-deprived they are. We all manage to relax a little, swap rescue stories, and finally head off to sleep. Tonight we both finally shower and decide we're going to take the time to actually put on clean clothes instead of sleeping in the same ones we've been wearing for two days. We're a little reluctant to give up the matching urban camo BDU's we've been wearing, as people now recognize us by these. We're now "the vets in camo." This will be our fourth night of about five hours' sleep, but we feel we've all done well today.
We decided to sleep in a little this morning, because we're no good to anyone if we're too sleep-deprived. We wake up a 7 a.m. and head to the Prowler. We'll be doing search and rescue in the morning and triage in the afternoon. David has left for at least a few days, and we pick up our route instructions from Rose, one of the Prowler team. Justin, a computer geek and one of the mainstays of this operation, is visibly angry. Since HSUS is pulling out today, our internet access has been pulled. He can't do data entry to keep track of the addresses we've been to so we can stay updated. I don't know if I'll be able post today's blog or not. We may be able to find another Wi-Fi network nearby. We'll go looking as soon as I finish writing.
We have a third person with us today, a woman named Ronnie from Portland, OR. Our route today takes us into some of the poorest areas of the city. Many of these houses were dilapidated before the hurricane, and are worse than nothing now.
As we come in on I-10, we see the rotting corpse of the Pit Bull again. It has come to be something of an icon. Sure, there are other priorities for the people cleaning up the city, but nearly every person coming into New Orleans must drive past this body. What does the fact that it's still here say to them?
We arrive at an address on our route and find the owner has come back to her home for the first time a few hours ago. She has found her cat still alive, although it's skeletally thin, dehydrated and has a broken hip. It's obviously an old wound, and probably happened during the flood. The cat's owner thinks the bookcase in the dining room may have fallen on her. In any case, the owner is very glad to see us and is amazingly in control of her emotions. Like most houses here, hers is a complete ruin. She can't even go in the back rooms and breathe without a respirator. The stench is overpowering. There is no possible way for her to care for this cat, and she asks if we can take care of it until she is able to do so. We take the cat and give her the number where she can call when she's ready to take her cat back.
We see many people working in their houses to salvage what they can. People are allowed into the city to work during the day, but most must leave at night. Words cannot really describe what they must be feeling-to live in a house for years, sometimes your whole life, and all your earthly possessions will now fit in the trunk of your car.
I dread going to one particular address on our route. Three dogs were left in crates in the back yard when the owners evacuated. The owners called a few days after Katrina for someone to check on them, but I know what we'll find. The watermarks on the houses in this area are about six feet high. I feel sorry for these people in a way, but I'm also very angry. What kind of person leaves a dog in a crate on the ground where a storm surge of at least ten feet is predicted? As it happens, this address is also on another team's route due to accidental duplication, and they arrive there before us. They find the crates had been tied down to the fence, and all three dogs were drowned. Their bodies have long been reduced to skeletons with a little fur and skin. One of them was a Poodle, and the other two unidentifiable.
We finish our route having found only the one live cat, and we head to the triage point at three o'clock.
Other teams start arriving about 4 p.m. There are some happy stories, including one "first" for all of us in this whole experience-an injured dog with a dislocated hip, who was found in a back yard, is actually a neutered male!! We think this a real anomaly in this town. I haven't seen so many non-neutered dogs and cats since I went to Mexico.
One of the other teams tells us there's another ruined animal hospital nearby, so we head down there with our canvas bags to see if we can score more drugs or fluids. Disappointing-there's a spray-painted note on the front door "meds taken for animal rescue 9/27", and it's been cleaned out already.
All told, we send fourteen animals to Best Friends today. Fourteen little lives that won't be lost. We know of several other independent groups doing the same thing we are, so every day at least 100 live animals are coming out of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish.
One of the volunteers bought a huge vat of wine-in-a-carton at a local convenience store, and we're all getting ready to help her drink it after the 9 p.m. meeting tonight. It sounds like a good ending for the day.
We find out at tonight's meeting that tomorrow we go into a new section of the city that has just been re-opened yesterday. It's now 40 days since the hurricane. Is it possible that we can continue to find live animals in houses? How long can the Prowler team continue to work here, and where will it go? Alex has asked Iaon and me if we'd be willing to come back in a month, as they intend to stay as long as they're able to help. They really want us to come back and assist them in helping the local animal people set up a working system of animal rescue. We're 90% certain we'll do it.
This is our last day working here, and we don't want leave-there's so much yet to do. We won't be able to post yesterday's or today's entries without internet access, so I'll have to wait until I get home to post.
The Prowler has had to move from the barns at L-D to an RV area that is a small city of insurance claim adjusters. There are at least 200 of them who live here and go into New Orleans daily. The Prowler seems out of place here. It's dirty and surrounded by heaps of animal crates, pallets of dog and cat food, and boxes upon boxes of supplies and equipment. We are now operating and communicating strictly by cell phone, since our internet access is gone. We have no maps of specific houses today, so the teams split into grid search areas.
As usual, our route takes us past the Superdome and the dead Pit Bull. We vow to have a drink in its honor when we get home, as it has become so symbolic of our time here.
Today we see even worse destruction than before. This area is the northeastern-most part of New Orleans and lies between Lake Ponchartraine and some large canal that flooded. Many houses are completely flattened; brick walls are piles of rubble. Since we've been here, we've seen thousands of cars that were completely submerged in the flood water for days; they are ruined and unusable. This is fortunate for us today. We've picked up a large roofing nail in our tire and we're driving on the spare. Iaon doesn't want to get too far into areas where the roads are completely covered with debris without another tire, so we decide to do a little commandeering. It takes us about an hour to find a drowned Jeep about the same year and model as ours. According to Iaon, the lug patterns on the wheels are proprietary to Jeep, so other makes just won't fit. This particular one has larger rims than ours, so in order to make the drive back to Florida, we can't use only one that's an odd size. He decides we must take all four off the drowned vehicle and put them on ours. We locate four chunks of concrete to use for blocks, remove all four tires from the donor car and put them on our Jeep.
This is my first time ever changing a tire, and my first time stealing rims. I'm learning quite a few new skills this trip: breaking and entering, destruction of property, and now theft. It's also the first time I've ever put my martial arts training to use-good kicking technique is very handy for opening doors that are swollen shut. As we finish up and leave our old four tires leaning up against the other Jeep, a cop drives by and waves, seeing the "ANIMAL RESCUE" sign painted on our windows.
Criminal activity completed, we're on our way. It has only taken us 40 minutes to swap out all four tires, which makes me wonder a little about Iaon's teenage years.
We cruise the grid, talking to everyone possible. Many animals have been found by talking to neighbors who know which houses contained pets and most are happy to help. We've been taken aback by how friendly and accepting most of these people are. Even in the worst possible areas of the city, people are warm and ready to help, some of them even driving rescuers to houses they think had pets. We have not had one single incident of a person being the least bit angry or aggressive toward us, although we know it has happened to other teams.
We have not found any live animals, and it's getting close to 3 p.m. when we must be at the triage center, so we start to cruise that general direction when we meet another rescue team with one cat. We take the cat with us and are ten minutes away when we receive a phone call that the team we just left has found a house with a live cat in the window, and the neighbors have told them that the house contained twenty cats. They need back-up, so we turn around.
The four of us enter the house, Iaon and I armed with our cat-nabber, a squeezable net for capturing angry kitties. The debris, filth, and stench take our collective breath away, even though we're now used to it; this seems worse than anywhere we've been, and we soon find out why. There are dead cats everywhere. Behind the sofa, in the bathroom sink, under the bed. Some have been dead so long they're not much more than skeletons, but others only recently deceased. Going room to room is eerie. One bedroom is filled chest-high with a collection of baby dolls whose glass eyes seem to look back at me. There are empty water bowls and empty cans of cat food everywhere.
In one large bedroom, we hit the jackpot. Three live cats! And boy, are they scared. Since Iaon and I are the professional cat wranglers, we enter the room with a crate and the cat-nabber and close the door. Cats immediately start bouncing off the walls, bookcases, and the wet, filthy mattress as we try to corral one. After twenty minutes, we finally have them all. They have taken small chunks of us with them, but they're all in crates now.
We leave with the cats to go to triage, and the other team stays to try to locate any other live ones.
Due to our cat adventure, we arrive at triage a little late. There are already teams waiting with animals. The one in the worst condition is a little brown and white Pit Bull female. She's covered with mange, emaciated, and has nipples hanging so low she almost steps on them when she walks. I suspect she's had ten or twelve litters, but she's not nursing now. That's good, because that would mean the team would have to go back and search for pups. Someone had flagged down the rescue team and told them they heard a dog inside a house. They broke down the door and found her laying by her empty food and water bowls in the kitchen. At this moment, she's in doggie heaven. She's had water, a meal, and is laying in a crate working a rawhide chew, her eyes closed in contentment.
We have two extremely aggressive dogs today; the kind that snarl and bark at the cage bars when someone walks by. We are fortunate to have Rob with this group. His expertise in dog wrangling probably saves a less experienced team from being shredded. The team located these two dogs and knew they were in over their heads, so they called Rob for back-up.
Today we triage and send twenty-four animals to Best Friends, including an albino python a team has found under a house. This is the first exotic Iaon and I have seen since we've been here. I suspect that all the ferrets, rabbits, and other small mammals who weren't pulled out early are long-dead. They simply cannot survive on nothing as dogs and cats seem to be able to do. There are also two fish-one Koi and one suckerfish that were removed from a nasty, filthy, flooded aquarium. They seem to be doing well, and we'll take them back to Florida with us where they can live out their days in our Koi pond.
We drive back to L-D knowing this is the last time we'll see this city or these people for a long time. We find out at the 9 o'clock meeting that there will be no more trucks to Best Friends, as this was costing $1800.00 per day. The truck driver was not donating his time or his rig. They are working on other arrangements, but nothing is known for certain except that the Prowlers are not abandoning the animals of New Orleans.
We all go out to dinner, as this will be our last night all together. Several of us must leave tomorrow, so we say our good-byes and exchange email addresses. We do intend to come back.
I'm writing this in the car on our way back to Florida. We took a two-hour detour to Best Friends Sanctuary to pick up two animals who are going back with us. We have the cat with the destroyed leg that needs amputation and the dog with the dislocated or broken hip that will need surgery. By taking them we remove at least a little financial burden from Best Friends, because now they don't have to bear the cost of these two surgeries. We'll do both procedures, and then place these two into loving homes. They'll be in foster care for three months first, because that's the official time window for an owner to reclaim a Katrina pet. If no one claims these two, they will be available for adoption.
While we were there, we saw many familiar faces. The animals we've been putting on trucks for the last few days were all there. A few of them seemed to recognize us. We'll certainly remember them for a long, long time. At the same time, there's an ache in the pit of my stomach knowing that hundreds, if not thousands, of other animals will never come out alive. There were just not enough rescuers and not enough time. The rules about not evacuating animals must change or we cannot call ourselves a civilized country.
Even without considering the humanitarian aspect, the fact that a great many of these people were not allowed to take their animals has cost unimaginable amounts of time and money to try to recover them. The cost of providing pet-friendly evacuation shelters is a fraction of what has been spent here. Galveston learned that lesson well, and many more people left there voluntarily, thus facilitating the whole process. I hope the rest of the country learned the lesson, too.
We have plenty of time to talk on the drive home, even accounting for the multiple stops to clean up diarrhea. We make notes to selves that next time we try to make certain that starved animals are fed only I/D for a few days. Intestinal Diet is a prescription diet made by Hill's Science Diet especially for delicate digestive systems. In their eagerness to put weight on these animals, folks seem to be feeding too much rich food too soon. Hill's has donated literally tons of food, including I/D, so it shouldn't be a problem.
There are some haunting questions presented by this disaster. How do we as a society absorb all these homeless animals? Every community in the U.S. already has a pet overpopulation problem. If Katrina animals are adopted instead of local ones, then a local homeless animal dies in its place. Is the life of a Katrina survivor inherently more valuable than the life of an animal born in your town?
What are we going to do about the Pit Bull problem? More than half of all the dogs left behind were Pit Bulls. Neither we nor anyone else we spoke to saw a neutered Pit Bull. This seems to be an issue that is politically a hot potato, but someone has to talk about it. There seems to be some unwritten rule in the South that if you're black and poor, or if you're white and poor, you must own a Pit Bull. Even more importantly, you must breed it. I ponder the question: Is the size/aggressiveness of a Pit Bull inversely proportional to its owner's penis size?
The waitress at Chili's in Gonzales last night illustrated the problem perfectly. When she saw who we were by our ID tags, the first thing out of her mouth was "Do you have any blue Pit Bulls there? My boyfriend wants a blue Pit Bull." I asked if her boyfriend wanted to breed said Pit Bull, and she answered, "Well, yeah, I guess so. All his friends want puppies." She was absolutely clueless about what was going on. You can be assured that the members of our group filled her in, but she still didn't seem to get it. The whole idea was so foreign to her she couldn't even process the information.
Philosophical questions aside, there's no doubt we will do this again. It's addicting. The adrenalin rush when you pull a live animal out of a pile of rubble is indescribable. Besides, this experience has put everyday life into a completely different perspective. It no longer seems very important that the pizza you ordered is late, or that you weren't able to find the color shoes you wanted. We've spent the last five days in the middle of destruction, chaos, and death, watching people pack the remnants of their lives into shoeboxes. We met people who traveled from Vermont, Oregon, Texas, New Jersey, Alaska, California and Canada because they were moved by the thought of helpless creatures dying needlessly. We met two female marketing directors from Boston who climbed onto a roof and sledge-hammered their way through it to get to a dog in an attic. We met a film producer who came to document the rescue effort and became part of it.
We have renewed conviction about what's important in life, and are now firm believers that everyone in the U.S. should do something like this at least once. It will change you. I guarantee it.
PS: To all the people we worked with in New Orleans; Angie, Ronnie 1, Ronnie 2, Richard, Dave, Rob, Jen, Linda, Nancy, Carla, Rose, Justin, Alex, Pia, David, and others whose names I'm sorry I cannot remember: You guys are the best. We couldn't have hoped for a nicer group of people to team up with while slogging through the toxic waste. We've rarely seen such dedication and passion, and you are all inspirations. Maybe we'll meet again at some future disaster. I'd like to say something like this couldn't happen again, but I know better.
Update: Villalobos Pit Bull Rescue is the largest one of its kind in the world, and is always in need of financial support. Please find it in your heart to go to their website and make a donation .