Rescuing Animals in New Orleans
On Sunday October 2, 2005, our seven Indigo Rescue volunteers returned from the broken shell of what was once known as “The Big Easy.” With us were five dogs and one tiny kitten. Over the next few weeks our rescues, along with thousands of others moved out of the Hurricane states, would be posted on the internet to allow potential owners to try to identify their missing pets. Several organizations are working together to assist people in reuniting with their pets, but as the people of New Orleans struggle to piece their lives back together, the reality is that many will never return to the city and their pets will remain unclaimed. Those who are unclaimed will become property of whatever shelter or rescue has possession of them and they will be placed in new homes, with a new lease on a life that has been soaked with tragedy. These would be the lucky ones.
Our trip began on Saturday September 23, 2005 when the six of us, including one veterinarian, met up with a volunteer from NW In Defense of Animals and flew through the night from Portland to Jackson, Mississippi. We chose Jackson in an effort to avoid Hurricane Rita, now touching ground in Texas. We knew the rescue center set up in Gonzales had been evacuated, so we tentatively planned on working out of the rescue center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, but when we landed Sunday morning, we learned that most of Rita had passed and volunteers were needed again at the rescue center in Gonzales, closest to the city of New Orleans. We rented two vans and drove more than three hours from Jackson to Gonzales to the Lamar Dixon Expo Center. We stopped along the way to purchase additional supplies. Rubber boots, gloves, and drinking water. We were all anxious to get started.
When we arrived at the center, we checked-in and walked through the compound. It was nearly dark. We visited the set-up of barns that held hundreds of rescued animals. About a hundred people were scurrying around with various chores. Some walked dogs in a fenced arena near the back of the compound. Other volunteers were cleaning kennels and feeding the animals. Yet more volunteers worked in the VMAT area providing medical care for critical animals. The weather was hot and sticky and the entire expo center was surrounded by campers and trailers that housed human evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. A motor home was set-up with showers and there were a few bathrooms around the compound. We learned that there had been some incidents of theft on the compound, and possibly one woman who had been assaulted while walking to the bathroom. We pitched two tents on the gravel among another hundred or so tents, and quickly headed back to see what we could do to help. Being a veterinarian, Brenda was put to work immediately and we asked her if we could assist in any way. She had us draw vaccines and meds for worming the animals as they arrived at intake.
We learned that the meeting for search and rescue in the city would be at 5:30am, and since we’d been up the entire night before, we decided to try to get some sleep. It was harder than we thought. The night did not bring any relief from the heat. The air was heavy and we could feel the mosquitoes buzzing around. It was difficult to rest. Sleeping outside of the tent was risky because of the mosquitoes. We finally got up at around 5:15am and scrambled to get to the meeting.
About 40 people huddled around the Search and Rescue trailer for the meeting. They collected our drivers licenses and issued each of us credentials to enter the city. No one was permitted to pass the check point into the city except law enforcement officers, military personnel, insurance agents and animal rescue. They divided us into pairs and gave us a map of New Orleans that was broken into numbered zones. We were also given a list of addresses within our zone, from people who had called and reported their animals as still being at or in their homes. We were told to use pry bars, sledge hammers, and anything else we could find to break into homes. Long pants and heavy boots were required. They told us to search everywhere in the homes to determine whether an animal was still there and alive. Special attention should be given to bathrooms and crates where people had evidently locked their pets, thinking they’d only be gone a day or two. They shared some tragic examples of pets who had died because prior rescuers had missed them, but also some remarkable rescue stories about homes where they had found animals who had survived weeks without food or water. They told us we would need to leave enough food and water to sustain an animal for at least two weeks. They explained how feeding stations had already been left all around the city for the stray dogs and cats and we should refill those or start new ones when we saw more animals in a different area. We were told to use spray paint and leave a message for future rescuers; of what we had done at that location.
LASPCA 3 dogs F/W 9/28/05 (If food and water were left.)
LASPCA 3 dogs taken 9/28/05
LASPCA 3 dogs DOA 9/28/05
Lastly, they advised us to be sure to take snacks and lots of water to avoid getting dehydrated in the extreme heat and humidity.
The information imparted at the morning meetings was always a little different. On a few of the days, we were told only to bring back animals that were really in trouble or critically ill. Other days we were told to take anyone alive. We were also told there were animals trapped in homes that had not called in for rescue and that if we heard cries we should break-in to those homes too. It was sometimes very hard to tell who was being cared for versus left alone. If a home had no flood damage, but feces and other debris were strewn across the floors, we assumed the animals were on their own and needed help. Because of the mold and smell of dead animals, we were told to wear masks when we entered homes. The mood of most people at the meetings was remarkably steady, calm and determined. We all knew why we were there and we wanted to get out in the streets and save lives.
After the meetings, we loaded up our vehicles at the supply area. Pallets of food and other donated supplies were everywhere. We took a variety of dog and cat food and filled a dozen or more jugs of water. It was hardest to select supplies on the first day, but each day we got much better at choosing what we needed and packing it in a way that we could access what we needed in a hurry. We used wet food to tempt the shy animals and dry food to leave in feeding stations.
It was an hour to the military check-point in Gonzales. Gretchen and I were assigned to a team. Our vehicles were painted SPCA ANIMAL RESCUE, and sometimes during the drive, people would honk their horns and mouth the words “thank you” or give us an OK sign. Knowing they were grateful for our efforts was very emotional and it would bring tears to our eyes.
When we arrived in the city, we drove through the National Guard check-point and began navigating to our zone. We were immediately struck by the devastation. There were roof panels and debris strewn about the streets and we could see some homes had completely collapsed. There were broken power lines dangling down everywhere. We could tell people had attempted to park their cars on bridges or on high ground to avoid flood waters. Most of the flood water had dried up on the streets, but we could see the waterlines on the buildings and vehicles, showing us how high the water had actually been. The thought of it left us silent and it took our breath away.
We arrived at our first address and were immediately met by an angry Rottweiler with a growth hanging down from her belly. At the home next door and another across the street from the dog, were several terrified cats and kittens. We were somewhat overwhelmed, but quickly did as instructed, leaving food and water accessible to the dog, and in several places for the cats. We then quickly moved on to the next address.
I could spend lots of time telling you about what we found inside, or in front of each individual home we broke into, but the reality is that it was more or less the same and the homes and scenes all started to blur together after awhile. We used our pry bars and sledge hammers and found ways into the homes. We broke windows, cleared the glass from the frames, and climbed in. We pried iron bars from windows and doors. We broke through dead bolts. Home after home. Devastation, destruction, mold…lots of mold, mold covering the furniture, growing up the walls and across the ceilings. Lots of frightened or feral cats. Lots of angry or frightened dogs. Dogs running away from us down the streets, often wearing collars and tags. Many animals were dead and rapidly decomposing in the heat and humidity. It was difficult to tell whether they had died from thirst or starvation. Sometimes they had food and water available to them, so we could only assume they had died in the extreme heat inside the homes that had no ventilation. In one home, there were four small kittens, strewn dead around the hardwood living room floor. They were so badly decomposed that nothing much was left but a few patches of hair, and their sticky outlines with a thin little spine running through them. I looked in the kitchen and saw that there was water available to them but no food. The poor little things had tried to pull boxes of bake mix out of the cabinet and chew on them. We saw rabbits and birds who had died in their cages. One little cockatiel had died clutching the bottom rail of the cage. Sometimes someone, perhaps law enforcement officers, had dragged dead dogs onto the sidewalk in front of a home. The stench was overwhelming. A few times we saw fish aquariums, no longer ventilated with light or oxygen, but somehow the fish were still alive. We would feed them and hope someone would make it back in time. There was usually a split second of silent relief when we would find a cage outside, with the door open, and the animal had either been released or somehow escaped.
In spite of any horrific thing we saw, it always loomed over us that we still had over 100 addresses on our list, and every minute that was lost might be someone’s life; so we would move on quickly, trying to shake the images from our heads. I found myself frustrated and angry at how unnecessary all the death obviously was. One hastily made decision and thousands of animals had died a miserable death that could have been avoided.
It was sometimes a difficult decision for us, whether or not to destroy a window or door of a home where there were no signs of animals, but the stories of past rescues would force us to second guess whether they might be hiding in a closet or under a piece of furniture, or locked in a bathroom. We would deliberate sometimes for several minutes, knowing we were losing valuable time that we could be rescuing someone alive in another home. There was a sense of commitment to get through our list, but driving between homes we would find more animals on the streets and we would stop to set-up food and water for them. Many times we would see dogs running down the street wearing collars and tags, and we would follow them, both in our vehicle and on foot, trying unsuccessfully to lure them to us. Sometimes it was packs of ten or twenty dogs or puppies running down a street, who wouldn’t even cast a sideways glance when we called to them.
Anytime we found dogs or cats who allowed us to approach without them charging us or running away, we would struggle with the dilemma over whether to leave them or bring them in. They were always hesitant to trust us, but their fear would give way to hunger when they smelled the canned food. When we decided to take them, we would lure them to us, feed and water them, and carefully load them into crates and in to the van. We then transported them to a local college parking lot in New Orleans that had been set-up with a medical triage for critical care. This way we could unload the animals and make space in our vans for more animals, while getting the animals out of our hot vehicles and processed into the system for medical care. Then, it was back to our zone and more breaking-in to homes. Since there were so few people driving in the city, and numerous streets had been closed because of damages, we would find ourselves needing to detour the wrong way on a one way street, or even exit the freeway using an on-ramp to avoid a damaged area. It was a bizarre feeling of control, violating the principals of safe driving so blatantly.
The city was eerily quiet, and by the end of that long first day, I felt like we had been changed forever. Curfew was 6pm. We had made it through a day in hell. We drove back to the center quietly. Exhausted and somewhat dejected, but resolute in what we knew we needed to return to do tomorrow. Back at Lamar Dixon, we met up with each other and shared some of the most incredible stories of animals we had found, dead or alive. We made our way to the outdoor showers, made from concrete stalls draped with black plastic tarps for privacy and gratefully took a much deserved shower in the darkness. Those showers came to be the thing we most looked forward to at the end of each long day.
By the second night, FEMA had set up a giant air conditioned tent that housed about 300 cots. It was filled to capacity. The tent was co-ed, and since volunteers worked on opposite shifts depending on what they were doing, we observed 24 hour quiet time in the tent. The air conditioning in the FEMA tent made a few hours sleep possible, so we moved our gear and stayed there for the next several nights. When I went to sleep, the guy who occupied the cot on my right side was not there. When I woke and departed, he was there and sound asleep. I thought later, about how odd it was that I never met this person, a guy who I had such a close relationship with for several nights in a row. Funny. I wondered what area he worked in during his time at the center.
During the days that followed, Gretchen and I started telling each other stories from our personal lives during the drive to the city. The stories had humorous moments, but something about the state-of-mind we were in made them somehow hysterical. Maybe it was the lack of sleep and food. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was just that it was the only humor we expected to have in our days, and we relied on it to maintain a level of sanity. We would laugh until we had tears running down our faces.
There were FBI agents, DEA agents, New Orleans Police officers and National Guardsmen patrolling the city looking out for looters or other suspicious activity. Several of the FBI agents offered to assist Gretchen and I in breaking into homes. Sometimes, using pry bars, and sledgehammers wasn’t enough, so they would use their battering ram, or kick a door in for us. They would walk through some of the homes with us, looking for dead animals. We were relieved to know they also carried dog and cat food in their vehicles. On one occasion, we met up at a home where there was a very angry Shepherd trapped in the basement of a home and they were going to use a control stick to pull it out. I asked if I could try a slip lead instead, and explained that the dog was probably just hungry and terrified. I told them I didn’t think their uniforms were helping build the dog’s confidence. Seven FBI agents stood in a row on the street and watched while I lured the dog out from under the house. At first, he would see that I was above him and yank his head back through the hole, but his hunger would bring him back out again. Once he was eating, I dropped the slip lead into the food and slowly moved it over his muzzle. He hardly noticed it. I slid it over one ear, then the other ear, and by the time he realized it was over his head and tried to back-up, it was too late. The dog had caked the top of his head with mold from under the house, but I had him. I felt good about not having to use a control stick and the FBI agents were impressed to see it could be done without force or real danger.
Another time, some DEA agents flagged us down saying they had a rabid dog situation. They lead us to a home where two women with animal control experience were trying to get the dog on a control stick. I told the officers it was not likely rabies, but a very upset dog. It was an understatement. The dog was hysterical. You could hear her high pitched screaming from a distance. As it turned out, her companion, who appeared to be a Rottweiler, had died where she was tethered on a two foot chain on an upstairs balcony. The tether was so short her head didn’t reach the floor where she had died. The little Pitbull mix had survived by consuming part of her deceased friend. After the ACO brought her out on the control stick and we loaded her into a crate, we explained why she had been so hysterical. Hmmmm. Big surprise.
While in the city, Gretchen and I also teamed up with a young veterinarian named Celeste who lived in New Orleans and had been out doing rescue since the floods. She told us her office had been completely destroyed so she had been doing rescue instead of working. Celeste knew the area pretty well, so it saved us lots of time navigating, by following her from one place to the next. She told us she had been mugged before so she felt safer being with us on the road. Usually, one of us would stay in the vehicle with the animals, and update the list with notes about what we had found at each home. Once, Celeste and I had gone together into a home. We made a quick sweep, looking for survivors and determined there were none. We left the home and I got into the van with Gretchen driving, and Celeste got into her car and drove ahead of us down the street. As Gretchen followed, I suddenly looked down and saw a flea crawling up my overalls. I already knew what it meant. Once there were no live animals in a home for them to feed on, the fleas became desperate. I looked down and there were thousands of hungry fleas covering my pants. I yelled to Gretchen “Stop the car, stop the car, stop the car!” I jumped out before we had completely stopped rolling. Gretchen immediately called Celeste on the phone and said “I think you might be covered with fleas.” I frantically brushed the fleas from my clothes and my arms. By the time we caught up to Celeste, we were met with a humorous sight. Her car was stopped in a skewed position in the middle of the intersection. Her shoes and socks were a few feet from the car, and Celeste was a few feet away from them, pouring alcohol down her legs. The mosquito’s were bad, but something about thousands of fleas really made your skin crawl.
Sometimes there would be an angry dog locked in a home. We knew we needed to get food and water to the dog, but the dog was so aggressive we could not break-in to the home. In those situations, we would usually break through a window, and drop food and water pans to the floor and then pour water and food through the window into the pans. We often worried that no one would make it back to feed or water the dog again before it was too late, and we learned later that was sometimes the case. Celeste had fed a poodle and after we had returned to Portland, she went back to check on the dog. It was after they had started allowing citizens back into the city and the owner was in front of the home when she pulled up. She asked about the dog and the owner told her he had not made it and pointed to a box on the sidewalk. Celeste told me on the phone that day, it was the only time during the whole ordeal that she had cried.
Often when we would meet up late at night in Gonzales and we would share remarkable stories of rescues. We heard about a Chow Chow that had climbed on top of a ceiling fan when the water had risen in his home. After the water receded, the dog had been trapped on the ceiling fan! The dog had been found alive and rescued. Brenda, Connie and Faon had gone into a home and after making a sweep, one of them had spotted an Iguana in a terrarium. They weren’t sure what to feed it and deliberated on whether to take it. Since they weren’t sure if it was alive, Brenda was nominated to touch it. She used a stick and poked the still body of the Iguana, only to discover it was plastic! We had a good laugh over that one, and wished they had thought to take a picture of their new friend. In retrospect, all of us agreed that while we wished we had taken more pictures, we were so caught up in the rescue work we seldom remembered to try to document anything with our cameras.
We had not intended to bring any animals back with us, but we saw so many sweet, but pathetic, emaciated looking Pit Bulls and we knew they had little chance of making it into the adoption world. We had heard the Pit population was nearly 70%. Most were either used as fighters or breeders and some were used as bait dogs. All of them were intact. We decided to apply to take a small number home with us. In a few cases we had been part of the rescue of a specific dog so we applied to bring them home with us. It took several days to get approved. We could not be guaranteed the dogs we wanted to take would still be there on the day we left. Most were being moved in the middle of the night and they would not tell anyone where they were going. Many volunteers were very attached to the dogs and cats they cared for, but were not allowed to know anything about where they went or what would happen to them. We met many sad and frustrated volunteers.
We were given the name of a woman who worked with the airlines and had dedicated her vacation time to making arrangements to assist the dogs getting on flights. I called her and within an hour she had the dogs booked on our flight with us. We had to be at the airport at 4am, so on the last day, we drove up to Jackson and checked into two motel rooms. They allowed us to bring the dogs in to the rooms with us. We had dinner at a nice restaurant and were elated to shower and sleep four whole hours in real beds! The next morning we packed the dogs back up and headed to the airport. We gave the dogs an herbal calming supplement before they were loaded into the cargo area in their crates. The dogs endured a layover but I checked on them and they seemed to be pretty calm. We finally arrived at home and were met by one of the local news teams, who took footage of our rescues and asked what it was like…hard to sum up in a ten second clip.
All of the dogs tested positive for heartworm and were treated with a very expensive, lengthy and painful treatment, but all of them survived and found great homes. They were also positive for hookworm, whipworm, roundworm and tapeworm, more evidence of the culture and humid climate of Louisiana.
In the end, it was a life changing experience. I can’t imagine anyone having been there and seen what we saw without feeling changed somehow. There’s definitely a “zone” you have to get into in order to do the work without collapsing from the stress, but there’s also a feeling of gratification that emerges with each successful rescue. We all just wished we could have done more.