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Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Rescuing of New Orleans Dogs after Katrina

Past the swarms of love bugs of east Texas slathering my truck, through the swamp that had eerie pillars of dead Cyprus trees as far as you could see, over the bridge that you climbed at an angle not knowing what was on the other side till you finally topped it and headed downward, I finally pulled into the Gonzales, Louisiana, Humane Society Rescue area for hurricane Katrina. Being a dog lover and feeling like I needed to do something, I had volunteered with the Humane Society of the United States and was immediately requested to go to Gonzales.

As I pulled up, the National Guard was there asking for IDs. I explained who I was and was told where to go to sign up. In front of me was a huge pavilion, much bigger than I had imagined, with cars, trucks and large vans everywhere. I had been told to go to the sign-up tent. As I walked up, to my left I could see the incoming animals, those rescued that day from New Orleans. They were dirty, hurt and disoriented, but for the most part happy to be there.

To my right was the sign-up tent. I signed the necessary paperwork and was asked when I wanted to start. I basically said –NOW. Let’s get to it.
The woman said to get a cot at the FEMA tent so I would have a place to sleep later on. WOW—no tent on gravel? You mean I will have some relief from the oppressive heat. I am told to show up in 30 minutes at Barn 1 for second shift dog walking. Heh, dog walking. That will be easy. Lucky me.

6:30: I am in Barn 1, ready to walk the dogs. But wait, there are how many dogs in our barn--175. Yes, 175 dogs that five of us will have to walk, clean up after and feed. All shapes and sizes of dogs. Well, maybe this is not as easy as I thought. There are six barns, each with a series of horse stalls. Each horse stall holds either horses, dogs, cats, pigs, goats, birds or reptiles. In total I find out there are nearly 800 animals in all at this site. Eventually over 3000 will pass through here. In my barn we have not only the 175 dogs, but all cats, birds, reptiles, aggressive dogs and finally the Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams or better known as VMAT. Barn 1 is considered the most dynamic of all the areas.

After about one minute of training, we are off. First, we must don rubber gloves, due to the bacteria and unknown contaminates the dogs have been in, and then it hits me--the putrid smell or what New Orleans smells like. A rotting, infested, putrid smell that gets into every pore of your body.

My first dog to walk is a beautiful German shepherd female I nickname “Princess.” She acts delicate--leaning on me for comfort, not wanting to run, but slowly walking to the area where the dogs get exercise and go to the bathroom. She is so emaciated you can feel her spine, but she is sweet and just wants to be hugged. There is a note on her stall indicating the rescuer says she is a “really a sweetie, please take care of her.” I am beginning to wonder if I have what it will take for this week of volunteering. I hate to take her back to the cage, I just want to sit and hold her but I cannot.

Next is a gorgeous chocolate Labrador retriever that was obviously trained. He is a sweetheart and makes me look good walking him. I give him the name Henry. Then there is Pumpernickel a little terrier-mix full of himself.
I walk a number of pit bull terriers. I am told that they are having trouble with people trying to steal the pit bulls. So many of the pits are just big lovers, and all they want is to be petted. But unfortunately the sick sport of dog fighting is big in the United States. People involved in this will stop at nothing to see the spilled blood of these beautiful animals for their sick pleasure. One dog I call Momma Dog has had puppies very recently, but I do not see any in her cage, so I can only imagine what has happened to them.
Little Man the poodle must be carried out to the walking area. He is partially paralyzed, and those back legs don’t work very well, but he has a big heart. When I take him back to his cage I give him some soft food as he has few teeth, and those little poodle eyes look at me, lost and asking why. Lobo is a wolf hybrid who loves his back scratched. He is a lucky one, along with a number of his buddies, because they have an owner who is making arrangements to get them home soon.

During this first night, I experience what everyone does. I am walking, and the tears begin to roll down my cheeks, uncontrollably. There are many reasons these dogs are here, but for the most part it is due to humans being selfish. I really dislike the human race at this point. At the end of my shift, in the middle of the night, I hate to get in my truck to drive to the showers because I smell like the mud that is everywhere. But my feet hurt, so smell up my truck it is. I can still see the faces looking at me through the bars of the cages.

The next day I find a radio station, the United Broadcasters of New Orleans. The news the people are calling in and the “official” news coming out is not the same. I find the disconnect very unsettling. I have worked smaller disasters before but this was a total disconnect of what is real and not real.
The next day before I start my shift, I start finding out that contrary to what is being said in the news people were told by many of the rescuers that there would be someone along right behind them to get their family pet. There would be someone to save the dog or cat that woke them up and saved their lives in many cases. But they found out later that the animal that saved them had been totally ignored and for the most part allowed to die. The owners all have a great guilty sadness that they may never get over. Only another animal lover would understand.

I see person after person looking for their animals. “Have I seen an overweight basset hound, have I seen a beagle, have I seen…” They all have the same look on their faces, and they all are saying the same things, such as never trusting anyone again and how much they hate those in authority. Asking themselves over and over why did I listen, why did I not stay with my friend, my companion. When they ask me I have no answer for them, just a comforting smile that tells them I understand the pain.

We start our shift and I see a number of my favorites such as Princess, Henry and Little Man. Word goes out that a pit bull that’s had all its teeth pulled has been brought in. Evidently some sick person was going to use her as a bait dog for dog fighting.

I get to meet a German shepherd dog I call “King.” He is about 60 pounds underweight and only wants to be held. He really does not want to go back in his cage, and my heart is not into putting him there, but I have to. Every time I pass his stall he is looking at me and tears come to my eyes. There is Arnold, the beautiful black pit bull, that is more of a lap dog than some little poodle. He too doesn’t want to go in his cage and goes limp lying flat on the ground. He gets really heavy when I put him in the cage and as he looks at me with sad eyes my heart wants to take him out again. There are quite a number of dogs with chemical burns, others with embedded collars.

We now have volunteers from 18 years of age on up, from every state, including Alaska, Hawaii, and the countries of Canada, Puerto Rico and Germany. Each volunteer has stated that there is a total commitment to go back to their part of the country and do what they can to stop animal cruelty, such as dog fighting, and also to force the issue of including family pets in evacuations. We have all seen both sides from the devastation of the animals to the total feeling of loss by the owners. Neither should have to go through it. It is interesting to watch the culture shock of people from other states and countries as they meet up with the lax attitude on dog fighting or spay/neutering of animals. Those from other areas cannot understand why people seem to not care about what animal cruelty does to a society in general. They tell me that in their part of the country to NOT have your animal spayed or neutered is looked down upon. They ask me why the difference and I have no answer.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Rita is bearing down on us. All volunteers are ordered into shelters, though most of us want to stay with the dogs. All we can do is hope that all will be OK. We hear that Texas has allowed animals to evacuate with their owners. There is a huge hooray. Then we also find out that Louisiana still doesn’t allow the evacuation of animals, and a somber mood fills the room. We have seen the devastation of not allowing the evacuation of family pets and what it does to the mind and soul of people. Will those in charge never learn?

With the hurricane over we rush to see if the animals are OK. Everyone seems to be up to their old tricks of “how do I stay out of the cage”. They are each given treats and extra time just to let them know how much we care.

Back in the barn, I am told that King has been attacked by a pit bull and following
protocol has been placed in quarantine. I can still go by his cage, and he looks at me. I talk to him wishing I could get closer to him but because what has happened I am not permitted to.

We are told that the Dixon Correctional Prison has requested and taken 160 animals for the inmates, not only to only care for, but also to work with so they can eventually be adopted. Finally something good has come out of the disaster.

A man shows up with his brindle pit bull search and rescue dog. The dog is trained to search for dogs and cats and is going to be used in New Orleans. The dog lays next to me and keeps looking up at me as though it is trying to let me know something. Her dark eyes seem to penetrate into your soul.

Due to Rita I was not able to go into New Orleans to work with the first line rescuers. At first I really wanted to get the opportunity to go. During the evacuation I had time to talk with some of the people that had done those rescues and I came away wondering if I would have what it takes to do it. They talk about the maggots everywhere, the stench that is 10X more than what we have at our sight. They talk about the dead bodies of both animals and humans. Finally, trying to hold their composure they talk about the leaving of animals and how it would tear them up inside. The facility was at capacity so they were going out in the field feeding the animals food and water. Only the ones who were in dire needs could be picked up. Basically they were having to make hard decisions that if a puppy, dog or cat came up and was crying to be rescued but it did not have immediate medical needs they had to leave it. The people who talked about it cried and said they were haunted by the faces.

Finally, it is my time to leave. But I have to do one thing--check on King. I ask Scott, the person over the aggressive and quarantine area, what is planned for King. He says if everything goes OK he would be released into the regular population of dogs the following weekend. I get his ID number. Maybe I can adopt him. But that I won’t know till later on, and even then, it’s a big maybe. The volunteers are not allowed to adopt or do immediate fostering due to the Humane Society trying to give the owners every chance to get their animals back. They do not want people to think that we had gone in there and taken away their pets as the state during the original negotiations was trying to say we were going to do. I stand there looking at King, telling him he will be OK and if I can make it happen he will someday come home with me. He cocks his head, eyes looking at me as if to say don’t leave.

I leave the facility, tired and sad, but I have eight hours to cry and get it out before I reach McGregor. I can only hope that is enough.

Back home in our engine shop the following day, a lady from Beaumont comes in. She tells us she has lost everything but has her family, her dog and its puppies. She asks if I know where she might be able to take her five, three-week old Malamute puppies to get them out of the heat for a bit before she heads for Gatesville. My first question to her is: “How did you know to bring them here?”

She said no one told her, she just saw the place and felt this was where she needed to go. Again I volunteered. The pups were so soft and furry. After seeing so much of the bad side of humans, to see someone who was doing everything she could to protect those innocent pups made me feel like there still was some good out there.

As of this writing King has gone into the adoption system but I cannot find him. I can only hope that he will find someone who will understand his fear of being caged and will hold him as much as he wants to be held.

Written by Sandy Witliff


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