New Orleans’ Orphans

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New Orleans’ Orphans
One year later.

1

THE DIRTY, SKINNY COLLIE SPRINTED DOWN THE runway as my plane descended into Louis Armstrong Airport, swerving off the pavement to escape the roaring bird that chased him. Slipping through a hole in the fence, he was gone. The airport, one of the few gathering places left as people travelled in and out of the deserted ruins, likely lured the hungry dog because of its garbage output.

It was the first glimpse of the horror I would witness in New Orleans in the days ahead, just four weeks after Hurricane Katrina's August 29, 2005, blow caused the levees to break, washing water as high as 20 feet over the city's neighbourhoods. Evacuees fleeing for their lives were prohibited from bringing pets into buses and shelters. Now the animals inhabited the city alone.

It is estimated that more than 70,000 companion animals perished in the biggest disaster to strike pets in U.S. history. Communicating via Internet websites, thousands of rescuers from the U.S. and Canada staged the largest rescue of its kind, sneaking without credentials into a city locked down in a state of emergency. They rented SUVs and vans to rescue animals wandering the streets and locked up in houses.

All told, about 17,000 animals were pulled out alive in the months ahead, landing in makeshift triage shelters that popped up outside devastated New Orleans to admit the steady stream of emaciated, injured animals. Rescuers, including independents, veterinarians, animal advocates and care professionals slept less than three hours a night. They walked dogs, cleaned kennels, administered medications, and loaded animals for transport. Survivors were trucked or flown to more than 1,000 shelters and sanctuaries around the country.

I joined up with Pasado's Safe Haven, an animal advocacy group based near Seattle, Washington. Pasado's borrowed a barn in Raceland, Louisiana, on a 150-acre farm the week after Katrina struck to stage a two-month mission that saved the lives of 1,200 animals.

Like most of the out-of-town rescuers drawn to the region, it was the chilling television footage that called me there. Dogs and cats gathered on roofs and hung from treetops trying to escape the water that rose four feet every 15 minutes. Panic-stricken pet owners used any flotation device they could find. Some stayed and died with their animals. Dogs swam beside their owners' boats, not comprehending they weren't invited along.

I'm haunted by the animals of New Orleans, especially those I met but didn't save, like the shy, young black Labrador and her pup whose family ties I learned by reading the note their owner spraypainted on their trailer asking us to help them. We crawled under the demolished building but couldn't catch the frightened dogs. Colonies of feral cats peeked out of abandoned buildings, waiting until we were a safe distance away before scarfing down the food we left in paper bowls. I found animals left to endure the baking Louisiana heat without food and water melted into the pavement, usually positioned by the front or back doors.

Curry Magee of Magee & Sons Wrecking Yard fondly remembers his flock of 70 goats and a pony who obeyed him like pets. When the floods came, dozens of giant metal ocean containers rolled around like tumbleweeds and smashed everything to pieces. Three goats survived but were killed by hungry dogs.

The choice resident Reginald Andrews was forced to make as the city's floodwaters rose was excruciating: take neighbourhood children in his boat, or his two Pit Bulls, Shadow and Mama. When Andrews returned to get his dogs, he was denied entry.

"I put my dogs out and that hurt. They were my family," says Andrews, his eyes clouding over.

One year later, I'm returning to New Orleans to see what became of the animals we left behind.

Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' (LA SPCA's) Japonica Street location was wiped out by eight feet of floodwater. High, dry ground is limited, so a warehouse formerly used to store coffee is serving as the shelter's temporary home until its first $6.8 million building is complete, slated for December.

Initially the only running water was from one small restroom, painfully inadequate for a shelter housing 330 animals. Giant metal tubs of bleach water for disinfecting food bowls sit under an outdoor tent. The warehouse floors don't have drains. Every two months, the shelter spends $23,000 on absorbent puppy pads as a make-do solution. Usually a Zamboni rolls through to clean the floors but today it has broken down. The smell of dogs in the sweltering, sticky heat is pungent but not unbearable.

The landscape has changed dramatically, revealing a lamentable bright spot following the storm: it provided a desperately needed opportunity to get the burgeoning pre-Katrina stray population under control. "There are far less animals in the city now than before the storm," says Laura Maloney, executive director of the LA SPCA. "The silver lining is that we have an opportunity to get a handle on the population."

It's no small feat in a region whose citizens don't practice spaying and neutering, preferring animals keep the parts God gave them. About 95 percent of New Orleans' companion animals are unaltered. That jumps to nearly 100 percent in rural Louisiana where 1,000 animals used to come through the LA SPCA's doors each month. That has dwindled to 350. At Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter, intake numbers have dipped from 20,400 in 2004 to an anticipated 13,000 in 2006.

"(Before Katrina) you'd drive to work and see packs of eight or ten dogs just hanging out in neutral ground," says Maloney, referring to the grassy median between lanes of traffic considered safe terrain by the dogs. Officers used to hit the road five days a week with nets and catchpoles. Now just a few savvy dog packs remain.

Maloney, originally from Maryland, already faced the biggest career challenge of her life when she came to Louisiana five years ago hoping to improve animal rights in a state with a penchant for dog fighting, cock fighting, and hog-dogging, a brutal blood sport that pits a trained attack dog against a penned defenseless hog who has had his tusks sheared off with bolt cutters.

"There's a cultural shift still to come in the South," says Maloney. Speaking from her office trailer, Maloney talks about the push to spay and neuter. The Big Fix Rig, a rolling veterinary clinic sponsored by pet-friendly corporations and charities, alters 30 to 60 cats per day for $10 a head, travelling through southern Louisiana for feral cat trappers, shelters, and low-income residents. Dog owners pay $20 using the Spay Louisiana voucher program.

Despite the population drop, challenges have intensified for animal control officers. Kathryn Destreza is LA SPCA's chief humane officer and director of humane law enforcement, but currently she's doing animal control because the shelter is short-handed, as are most organizations and businesses in New Orleans. Even fast food joints often close by 3 p.m.

Destreza is following up on a stray dog call down where the levees burst in the Lower Ninth ward. This was the point of impact. Water snatched the houses from their moorings, washing them and the streets they lined up on clean away. Destreza's only clue is a house number. The house is empty but the dog has been here-fresh paw prints are tracked in the mud.

After one day in the destroyed neighbourhoods, my eyes are stinging. My throat is burning. I taste metallic blood, and later that night, I'm coughing up pink bile. Pollution hangs heavy in the air, the result of lingering toxic industrial waste, sewage, and decaying dead bodies, both human and animal. Destreza recalls wading through the muck at the decimated shelter. By the day's end, the laces and leather on her boots were starting to eat away.

"I went through four pairs in two weeks," she says. Although her home in New Orleans is habitable again, Destreza stays in Gonzales, commuting two hours each day to get away from the reminders of Katrina all around: billboards, yard signs, television news programs, restaurant conversations, and the constant view of people's possessions hanging out in the street for everyone to see.

Katrina taught people to prepare. Residents traditionally evacuated a couple of times a year expecting to return in two days. Habits are changing and so are laws. A bill passed this summer in Louisiana requires the government to include pets in evacuation plans. And residents learned the importance of identification when pets went missing in the chaotic rescue mission.

"It's really hard to drive through this city," Destreza says, recalling images of lost people and animals trying to process the storm's effects. "It was eerie. You'd be standing in the middle of the street, and before you knew it there would be a pack of 20 dogs surrounding you. People on the interstate were wandering like dead people. They were dehydrated. They would recognize you, but they wouldn't make any sense."

The deserted communities strike a chord in the hearts of Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO), a determined band of rescuers who can't bear to let animals starve in places where no human being could survive. ARNO volunteers visit 4,000 feeding stations covering 650 square miles each week, dropping water and $400 of dry food every day (60 20-pound bags). Though most of the strays come out after dark, feeders travel by day because of danger. Drug addicts have moved into abandoned houses where feeding stations are located, and looters roam searching for valuables. Military vehicles periodically rumble by.

ARNO negotiates with homeowners living in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers who fear the food will draw rats and raccoons. Maloney tends to agree with them.

"We do not support uncontrolled feeding," Maloney says. "It's about balance in nature, and this is interfering with that process."

Maloney says feeding thwarts the trapping of strays. Faced with a choice of food in a humane box trap or a source out in the open, the trap sits empty every time. Adrian Dillon, a dedicated feeder who replenishes 300 stations a week, loads her van with 200 pounds of food and 40 gallons of water before setting off, undeterred. ARNO volunteers flour the site to identify tracks belonging to domestic pets, and they don't see traps where they are feeding, Dillon says.

"A lot of (the strays) are pets who have been on the streets so long," Dillon says. "We know they're out there, and we can't just let them starve."

There's no question strays are struggling to survive in New Orleans. I found a hungry old stray dog infested with mange and skin lesions wandering at the side of the road on th way to my first interview.

As ARNO's Charlotte Bass Lilly unloads a school bus filled with 31 cats following a day on the Big Fix Rig, she recounts amazing stories of animal rescue still occurring, though few and far between. "We pulled three dogs from a building at the end of May, and they were alive," she says, crediting their survival to a giant bag of wet, moldy dog food. "All they wanted to do was crawl into little patches of sunshine."

The strays and shelters aren't the only ones suffering. People are still giving up their pets because they can't recover from Katrina, says Bass Lilly. "We've got people living in their vehicles with their animals."

Sam Bailey of Pontchartrain Humane Society says that potential adopters only want small animals suitable for a FEMA trailer.

"The animals are staying with us longer," Bailey says. "None of these people have homes. Adoption days are long and frustrating."

At a wrecked apartment complex, burglar alarms still bleat persistently one year after the storm. ARNO feeder Donna Sarvis squeezes through a small hole in a crushed metal fence to drop food and water. A short burst of barking prompts a search but the dog isn't found.

"This is my city and it's gone," says Adrian Dillon. "It's a ghost town. For a while we didn't even have birds. You can't wrap your mind around it. This is like a nightmare. When am I going to wake up?" ■

Carreen Maloney was a journalist in Canada for 10 years at the Ottawa Citizen, the Winnipeg Free Press and Business in Vancouver. Now she writes about animal issues and ghost writes for several animal shelters. She can be reached at carreen@fuzzytown.com.

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