Pet Rescuers Arranging Fewer Happy Reunions
Pet rescuers arranging fewer happy reunions
Mark Percy said he thought he had seen a ghost when he pushed open the flood-swollen door of his parents’ home in eastern New Orleans and encountered the family’s black cocker spaniel, Sabu.
The dog was still alive despite being entombed in the dank, moldy ranch house for more than five weeks. Sabu had been stashed in the attic at the onset of the flooding, but in the intervening days, he had fallen through the damp ceiling onto the ground floor. “He scared me to death,” said Percy, 20, marveling at the emaciated creature that rolled in the dry grass and lapped pellets of kibble from the sidewalk. “He’s a soldier. At best, I thought somebody got him. I thought he’d be dead.”
The somebody that Percy hoped would have gotten the trapped dog was one of the hundreds of animal rescuers from across the country who wandered New Orleans in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina, checking lists of pet-owner addresses, listening for barks, looking for furred faces in windows and otherwise searching for trapped animals. Their hand-marked vehicles, crowbar house break-ins and caged survivors were a leitmotif of the storm and flood’s aftermath.
But though animal rescues continued this week in largely empty neighborhoods, and though the resilience of domesticated animals — from house cats to lap dogs to exotic birds — was sometimes astonishing, time was no longer on their side.
Amanda St. John, the founder of Muttshack, a volunteer rescue organization based in Los Angeles, said the condition of the animals being brought to Muttshack’s Hayne Boulevard headquarters in Lake Castle Private School had deteriorated since the first weeks of the rescue. Predictably, the animals were becoming “skinnier and sicker and quieter.”
“A lot of homeowners are coming home to dead and dying animals,” she said.
The disposition of the animals had also changed. Gone were the gregarious dogs prancing toward their rescuers, replaced by sullen frightened creatures who had begun adapting to life on the street. Cages in the rescuer’s canine compound were marked with red labels designating animals too hostile to handle.
One recent afternoon, Karen O’Toole of Chicago and Nancy Cleveland of Los Angeles, two of Muttshack’s most dedicated rescuers, cruised the gray junk-strewn New Orleans neighborhoods — neighborhoods that were sometimes disheveled even before Katrina — conducting still another stray cat sweep. As their white van lurched from place to place, braking abruptly at any sign of life, they tore open small packages of pet food, tossing them from the moving vehicle like beads from a Mardi Gras float. The two women’s hands were punctured and scratched from handling cats.
“Now we’re seeing strays everywhere,” O’Toole said. “Whether their owners were told to leave them off or if they were released when the owners evacuated, there are poodles to pit bulls running loose. In a normal city, a stray can rummage through the garbage at a restaurant or convenience store, but here there’s nothing. We put out food everywhere, but there’s a handful of us, we can’t rescue a city of pets.”
In the course of a few hours, O’Toole and Cleveland collected four stray cats from t cages that had been set and tried unsuccessfully to coax a wary dog toward them on Ursuline Street. John Williams, a neighbor watching the scene, said the dog looked “like a damn hyena.” But that furtive stray seemed tame compared to the pair of wildly barking pit bulls on Gov. Nicholls Street. Too violent to safely noose, they were fed in place.
“Animals act differently now,” O’Toole said, “not because they’re mean but because they’re scared. Cute little poodles will tear your head off.”
To emphasize the grimness of the situation, the women broke from the hunt from time to time to give macabre tours of houses and yards where, despite their efforts, animals have perished. A chow in the Lafitte public housing development seemed to have melted into the rug where he starved to death. A mummified pit bull hanged from his leash on an eastern New Orleans fence where he may have strangled as flood waters receded. A cat skeleton peeked from beneath a pile of rubble. The rescuers recall a small dog, alive but too weak to move, that had presumably been put out with the trash in front of a home. Another dog, found in a bathroom, barely had the strength to raise its head to greet rescuers.
“This is an animal holocaust,” Cleveland said.
Some pets abandoned
Though the ad hoc animal rescue operation that saved the lives of thousands of pets in the weeks after Katrina is a humanitarian success, controversy simmers around the zealotry of some of the rescuers, who blithely broke into homes to save animals they felt were in jeopardy, regardless of whether they had been contacted by animal owners. O’Toole and Cleveland believe the lives of the animals outweighed the rights of the owners.
“I thought when they opened the city, people would rush back to get their pets,” O’Toole said, “but some people have just abandoned them. We were told to no longer be going into people’s residences as of last Wednesday, but we’re working in neighborhoods where the houses are condemned.”
As an example of their approach, Cleveland and O’Toole mentioned breaking into every apartment in a complex in eastern New Orleans that they believed had been abandoned and doomed to demolition. O’Toole said she had learned to divine the presence of dogs and cats by certain exterior clues. If she saw a dog figurine in a window, she would search for a dog. If a house had an abundance of house plants or decoration, she would suspect a cat.
“I’ve never felt bad about breaking a window once,” said O’Toole.
Back at the Hayne Boulevard headquarters, a dog handler walked a terribly skinny German shepherd on the parking lot. The animal’s head was tilted disconcertingly to one side, the apparent result either of chemical toxins or a severe ear infection. He paced unsurely in tight circles. Elsewhere on the parking lot a skeletal chow was bathed to remove dirt and possible pollutants. The dog had gone deaf and blind for unknown reasons. Another chow, also blind and rescued from beneath the same house, lay forlornly in a cage in the veterinary station.
“Now the animals we’re seeing are much more critical,” said Muttshack veterinarian Sabra Lucas of Troutville, Va. “We’re seeing a lot of chemical burns, skin sloughing, emaciation, severe dehydration — basically, they’re just starved.”
Despite the near-death condition of some of the animals, the veterinarians have euthanized none. St. John says that, curiously, the most damaged animals are often the first to be adopted once they’ve reached evacuation sites. “Old people take old dogs, people with heart conditions take dogs with heart conditions, people with a limp take dogs with a limp,” she said.
Several owners have appeared at the Muttshack compound to retrieve lost pets, or surrender ownership, but the majority of the animals remain unclaimed. These castaways are cataloged, photographed and implanted with microchips to help reunite them with their owners, should their owners reappear, before they’re taken away to “no-kill” shelters, then foster homes across the country. The animal shelter at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, a clearing house for thousands of rescued animals, closed Oct. 10.
Even at the height of the rescue effort, the reuniting of animals and their owners has been a hit-or-miss endeavor, plagued by mistaken identities, clerical errors and miscommunication. St. John believes that though Muttshack continues occasionally to reunite animals with their owners, the possibilities are becoming slimmer.
Everybody who had an animal had a lottery ticket,” she said. “If we found your dog, if anyone found your dog, you won the lottery. The truth is, the chances of winning are small.”
St. John expects Muttshack to remain in New Orleans until January.
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