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Catch as Catch Can 

It was the second week in November, and our posse of animal rescuers was still out in the Eighth Ward, searching for abandoned pets left behind during the evacuation from Hurricane Katrina. We had sledgehammers and zeal, but searching for dogs loose on the street was becoming quixotic. By then, a lot of the animals being brought to the Winn-Dixie parking lot on Chef Menteur Highway in Gentilly had been locked inside their owners' houses for the past 10 weeks.

As part of a patchwork quilt of freelance animal rescuers from across the country, I readily concede that a few of us based at that Winn-Dixie parking lot could have been called overzealous. A bartender I knew in Bywater stopped speaking to me for several weeks when she heard what I was doing. She had lost her cat, which was in no need of rescuing, to a group that locals began calling "those animal-rescue people." Another friend had stopped two women, twice, from breaking into his neighbor's house with a crowbar.

It's difficult to explain to distraught native New Orleanians -- most of whom had already lost a lot if not everything -- that some of us had been here for weeks. We were here when the only other inhabitants of New Orleans were military troops, police and thousands of trapped and displaced animals. Thousands more pets had already died. Put on the blinders of a cause and other sensibilities often fall by the wayside. We barely even knew each other beyond our first names, maybe our hometowns, focusing instead on breaking down those doors. Guilty myself, I did it a half-dozen times one morning at an apartment complex in eastern New Orleans with an animal-control officer from Portland, Ore. Behind one of those doors, we found a 6-month-old pit bull locked in a kitchen closet.

A cause can be a clarifying, liberating, intoxicating high. Joe from Ohio (as I knew him) was using his sledgehammer to crack through waterlogged floorboards. Three days before, he had found a sweet collie-shepherd mix at a house around the corner. The dog was lactating, so instead of a rescue, Joe kept coming back to follow her around and sniff out her puppies, if they were still alive. At this point, dogs were eating dogs on the streets of New Orleans. He had spent an hour with a flashlight crawling under this house, dilapidated at best before Katrina wrecked it. Sporting the sunburn, hairdo and stubble of a guy who's been living out of his car for a month, Joe's boyish Midwestern twang belied a preternatural, near-manic energy. About 5-foot-4 and weighing maybe 140, he had the perfect build for the extreme sport that dog catching in New Orleans had become.

I sat on a doorstep with two other, less-zealous animal rescuers. A woman from Wisconsin wondered when you should just take the dog you know you can save and let the rest go. Joey, a Tulane med student with unexpected time on his hands, observed, "You want to save every animal you can, but you're never going to save them all." A few blocks away sat a house on North Villere Street where I had seen four pit bulls that had drown. "Four dead dogs on logging chains in backyard," a volunteer from the Winn-Dixie had spray-painted on the house back in September, adding a postscript to the front door, "You Should Go To Jail."

The pit bulls were still out back, but after all the dead and maimed animals of the past six weeks, it wasn't a scene I felt any need to describe again. So we were just talking, sledgehammer blows punctuating the unspoken subtext of our sidelong glances -- we were wondering if this guy from Ohio was a nut -- when Joe yelled, "I got 'em!"

And somehow, miraculously, he had. From down in the dark muck he reached through rotting wood and pulled up, one by one, four puppies no more than 2 weeks old. "I tell ya, I did some partying when I was younger, and my dad, he was a Marine, and he can't understand why I came down here, and why I went home and then came back down here again," Joe says. "But this, nothing I've ever done compares to this. The only payoff here is the pure joy of doing what I'm doing, and brother, right now I'm banking!"Ê

By mid-November, the animal rescuers at the Winn-Dixie had dwindled to about a dozen diehards who would end up staying through the end of the month. More than half of them were looking for jobs and apartments, intent on staying in New Orleans. Two months earlier the scene had looked like a cross between a Lollapalooza concert and a M*A*S*H unit for Noah's ark. Dozens of rescued animals -- an inexhaustible menagerie including goats and iguanas and chickens and ferrets as well as dogs and cats -- came in every day. Frustrated with the bureaucracy of Lamar-Dixon Expo Center -- where animals evacuated during the hurricanes were first housed -- and the enormity of the tragedy surrounding him, in mid-September Mark Martin, a volunteer from Georgia, had set up camp here, using the parking lot as a way station while he rescued animals from Gentilly and the Ninth Ward.

More volunteers arrived, and at first they were bringing in a hundred dogs a day, using boats and rubber waders on streets where bodies still floated. At night they slept in the backs of their trucks and listened to gunshots in the neighborhood.

Martin, who owns a pet supply business in Georgia, got on his cell phone and began posting on the Internet. Within a week "the Winn-Dixie" became a phenomenon in the larger story of post-Katrina New Orleans. Donations and volunteers came in from across the country. Dozens of kennels and cages were set up under two circus tents. Volunteers camped out under the stars. Threatened several times with being shut down by the city and the LA/SPCA, Martin and Richard Crook, a former firefighter from Michigan who took over the logistics of the encampment, negotiated alliances with the National Guard and federal law enforcement that kept them in business.

Hippies, punkers, yuppies, rednecks, activists, renegades, do-gooders; we were none and all of the above. Many of us had no experience whatsoever. No great shakes as an animal handler, I'd like to think of the dozen or so cats and dogs I personally rescued as a sort of karmic insurance policy. As much as the animals, it's the people we will all remember. Tom from New York was a retired firefighter who worked at Ground Zero after 9/11. Tall, bald, bespectacled and a few decades older than most of us, he selflessly cleaned kennel pans in 90-degree weather for two months. Larry from Atlanta made four trips away from his billboard business to spend weeks crawling under shotgun houses with a catch pole. His slow Southern drawl never betrayed a hint of uncool, even when a mongrel bit him in the crotch and sent him to a hospital for half a dozen stitches.

The two Bens, one from Idaho, the other from Georgia, both around 25 and identified by their hair -- Red Ben and Dread Ben -- met in a boat full of dogs and became an animal-rescuing duo, starting a friendship that will probably last a lifetime. Women proved to be some of the best organizers and, in the case of Cassandra (also from Ohio), dog catchers as well. A tall, suntanned tomboy somewhere past 40, she wrangled pit bulls under shotguns by day and volunteers under the circus tents by night.Ê

Kelli from Seattle, a twentysomething real estate mogul, left her business to manage dog kennels in a New Orleans parking lot for six weeks. "For most of us doing this, we're here because something was missing in our lives back home," she tells me. "I have no idea what I'm doing when I go back, but I think it's going to change my life."

Everyone I talked to -- as a recovering journalist, my tape recorder and camera were always handy -- would say the same thing. Certainly it was true for me. When I left New Orleans last spring and moved back to North Carolina, burned out on the freelance life I'd been living for five years, I had no intention of coming back. Stuck in a deep rut, in late August I was planning a move to New York, then spent the first three weeks of September watching a city I loved sink into an abyss. Finally, it was time to do something else, and at least the destination was perfectly clear.Ê

As for Joe from Ohio, he's staying in New Orleans through at least the end of the year. "There're too many animals here that still need to be saved," he says. "As long as they're here, I'm here." Success by Stealth Marilyn Knapp Litt never intended to become an animal rescuer. Still, without ever setting foot in the hurricane-ravaged region, she has facilitated the return of 490 pets to their owners. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina evacuees filled four shelters in her hometown of San Antonio, the retired federal webmaster decided to volunteer with the Red Cross.

At first, her intention was to extend some Texas hospitality and take displaced people where they needed or wanted to go -- mothers to the mall, teenagers to a local pool. But her efforts were stymied by restrictions. "So a few of us made up our own badges," Litt recalls. "We used the name Stealth, so now we were just people helping other people in spite of rules and regulations."

As the days wore on, Litt used her 20 years of computer experience, along with those of a small cadre of friends, to reconnect families by searching Katrina databases. Eventually, evacuees requested her help in locating pets. Her postings on the NOLA.com forum caught the attention of Petfinder's founder Betsy Saul, who recruited Knapp to find the owners of found pets with identification or rabies tags.

Less than four months later, Litt has developed a case management and audit system and oversees the efforts of more than 700 Stealth sleuths around the clock. Supported only by the determination of individual volunteers with no government oversight or big corporate budget, the group has perhaps the highest reunification rate among rescue organizations.

"This is most meaningful thing I've ever done," Litt says. "It's just lucky. I'm not working. I know computer stuff. And, we've got a lot of people -- some from as far away as England, Canada and Belgium. Many have said they really wanted to come to the area and help but couldn't. This is their contribution. It's addictive. People are neglecting their jobs and other responsibilities to help. It's hit or miss."

Not every story has had a happy ending. Of the more than 2,800 cases reviewed, more than 1,600 remain unsolved, and 47 owners have relinquished their pets for adoption. Some owners have been contacted only to find the shelter adopted out the animal in the interim.

Litt predicts the Internet group will disband by Dec. 31. By that time, all shelters will begin adopting out the remaining Katrina pets, and the reluctant rescuer may get some well-deserved rest. -- Hirsch

Search Tips

If you are still searching for a pet, the most comprehensive database and sophisticated search engine is the Hurricane Pets Animal Emergency Response Network on Petfinder.com.

Once you arrive at http://disaster.petfinder.com/emergency, you can view reports on found pets that now reside in shelters across the United States and Canada. The database searches can be qualified by breed, gender, microchip number, or identifying characteristic such as a scar or distinctive collar.

Searching the site can be frustrating. There is no sure-fire formula for success. Unfortunately, the database is far from complete, and some paperwork on animals was lost when they were transported to shelters. Many search-and-rescue teams came from out of state and were unfamiliar with the city, and bleary-eyed volunteers shot countless photographs of traumatized animals under poor lighting conditions and filled out mounds of paperwork on thousands of animals each night at Lamar-Dixon.

The result is many errors regarding everything from transposed zip codes (i.e., a pet found in 70112 marked as 70122) to mislabeled breeds (i.e., a bichon misidentified as a poodle).

To navigate most effectively, begin putting in as many details as possible. Unless your pet had his or her name on an I.D. tag, searching by name is futile. If your search yields no leads, cast your net wider by beginning a search with only the breed and gender of the animal and narrow down the entries from there. Then, try breeds that could be easily mistaken for your pets' based on appearance or size. Also try different color variation for the breed (i.e., yellow, chocolate, black Labrador retriever) and even mixed breed.

If you have several pets, do not assume they will be at the same location. Many people have found their animals in different parts of the country. If you see an animal that looks like your pet, contact the shelter with the animal either by email or the phone number posted in the listing. If none is available, call HSUS at the number listed below. Even if your early attempts yield no results, continue to check the web site often, as many groups are still in the process of getting their animals loaded onto the site.

And, most important, post your contact information and pet's description -- and photos if you have them -- by clicking on "I've Lost My Pet." Many shelters with Katrina pets frequently scour the site looking for owners.

If you have no access to computers or need further assistance, call (800) HUMANE-1. -- Hirsch

click to enlarge People thought 'Joe from Ohio,' one of hundreds of animal - rescuers, was a little nuts with his obsessive search for - puppies  until he found four of them. - BILL SASSER
  • Bill Sasser
  • People thought 'Joe from Ohio,' one of hundreds of animal rescuers, was a little nuts with his obsessive search for puppies until he found four of them.
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