For more than 40 days and nights after Hurricane Katrina, it rained cats and dogs -- as well as potbellied pigs, parakeets, chinchillas and iguanas -- in the town of Gonzales. During that time, three un-air-conditioned barns that normally are used as horse barns at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center served as both the command center for the largest animal-rescue project ever attempted and the largest animal shelter in the United States. It wasn't easy.
Coordinating rescue efforts across southeast Louisiana and opening the sprawling shelter at Lamar-Dixon required a Herculean effort by several humane societies that don't normally work in such close quarters -- or even on the same levels. For decades, the LA/SPCA on Japonica Street has reigned as the New Orleans region's most prominent animal rescue agency. After establishing a temporary headquarters in Gonzales, LA/SPCA was joined by personnel from its national affiliate, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), generally the first responder when catastrophes threaten animals. In Katrina's wake, however, all three groups were thrown together at Lamar-Dixon, which became the animals' Ground Zero. It was a forced three-way marriage.
By Sept. 30, more than 6,000 pets had entered the shelter. On that date, the LA/SPCA opened a temporary headquarters and shelter in Algiers. And, while the Lamar-Dixon shelter operated until Oct. 15, the tide of displaced pets in Gonzales slowed to a trickle after the Algiers facility opened.
But the logistical and bureaucratic problems of caring for so many displaced pets -- and reuniting them with their owners -- were just beginning.
The groups have doled out several million dollars in grants to organizations and shelters -- but some say they did not give displaced animals enough time to be identified by their owners. According to HSUS figures, only 707 Louisiana owners have been reunited with their pets, and more reunions seem unlikely. Most of the 4,200 dogs and 1,400 cats rescued from floodwaters, balconies and streets are now scattered among shelters across America.
Under the terms of an agreement that the state required the animal rescue groups to sign, the displaced Louisiana pets became the shelters' property -- and therefore eligible for adoption, release to rescue groups or euthanasia -- on Oct. 16.
Earlier in October, HSUS, the ASPCA and the state veterinarian appealed to the nation's animal shelters to hold displaced Katrina animals until Dec. 31. But that hasn't always happened.
Some evacuees lack the will or the resources to look for their missing pets. Even for determined pet owners, a search requires hours squinting at blurry Polaroids on the Web site Petfinder.com or calling in their descriptions to polite but overwhelmed operators at a HSUS phone bank.
And even those resources are dwindling. On Nov. 23, HSUS stopped accepting new requests for assistance on its hotline. It plans to close its Katrina reunification files on Dec. 16.
From Dallas, Gentilly plumber Rivers Jacques trawled the Internet searching for Nicodemus, his rambunctious palomino-colored golden retriever. Jacques, his family and two golden retrievers safely rode out Katrina until floodwater from the Industrial and London Avenue canals converged on Clover Street. A few days after Jacques evacuated his family, he boarded a swamp craft already filled with people. From the reports he heard on his 27-year-old transistor radio -- his only link to the outside world -- he knew animal rescue groups were approaching and hoped they would bring his dogs to safety. He intended to recover the retrievers.
Three days later, Baton Rougean John Ratcliff coaxed the stranded dogs from a porch into the boat and brought them along with four cats and two ducks to the Lamar-Dixon shelter's intake area. In late September, Gulf South Golden Retriever Rescue president Jim Butts of Houma wrested seven goldens from the shelter, called the phone numbers on the I.D. and rabies tags and quickly reached Jacques and four other owners.
Elated to find his copper companion, Columbo, Jacques immediately asked, "Where's Nico?" Butts had no answer.
For Dorothy Wright and her family, the question of her cream-colored poodle Tiny's fate is even more perplexing. After Katrina damaged her roof, the 70-year-old left provisions for Tiny and waited near I-10 for a bus out of the city. After several days in Texas, Wright convinced her family to return to Gretna for Tiny. She later moved to the evacuee shelter housed in the Lamar-Dixon Trade Mart building so she could remain close to her pet. "That's all the company I have," says Wright.
Despite a large "owner-on-premises" sign taped to her crate, the poodle disappeared, leaving the Wrights with nothing but an intake number.
So what are the chances of an owner finding a cherished black cat with green eyes? "It's the kind of thing that keeps us up at night," says Julie Morris, ASPCA senior vice president of national outreach in New York. "It underscores the need for I.D. on the animals, both visual and microchip. Some animals will not get back to owners; but hopefully some pets will be reunited."
Both Jacques and Wright returned to the Crescent City with the small consolation that their missing dogs are probably safe, living somewhere else, with someone else.
Quick intervention and the relentless dedication of HSUS, ASPCA, Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, International Fund for Animal Welfare, National Guard troops and hundreds of volunteers from Louisiana and across the country undoubtedly saved many pets' lives. But the near impossibility of reuniting owners with their pets has disheartened local volunteers and animal rescue groups.
Based on previous natural disasters in which no more than 650 animals were displaced, the HSUS disaster relief team arrived prepared to handle such a catastrophe. Then, Katrina rewrote the definition of disaster.
"Lamar-Dixon was set up by LA/SPCA to stage and house animals displaced by the storm," says Melissa Rubin, HSUS vice president of field and disaster services, in Maryland. "We had plans to set up a temporary shelter [where owners could come and claim their pets]. Within two days, we saw the levee break. The disaster and the problems just got so large. We needed so much help -- 300 volunteers a day just to care for the animals."
The flood of pets led not only to a logistical nightmare, but also to bad feelings between the national coalition and local rescue groups.
"They never made the best use of volunteers," says Florence Robinson, secretary of the Animal Protection and Welfare Society (APAWS) based in Baton Rouge. "If they'd had volunteers working on paperwork from the beginning, they would not have been so far behind in the database.
"They looked at [locals] as unequal and incompetent," Robinson asserts. "If you wanted to help, you could wash out dog dishes. ... All these rescue groups had been helping dogs in south Louisiana for years. We were begging to help. We wanted to help."
Local all-breed and breed-specific rescue groups say they offered to foster animals and scan microchips to help locate owners. Instead, they say, national coalition staff mired them in an almost-daily credentialing process, often followed by a 48-hour waiting period -- and new regulations when they returned.
"We're a local rescue, and they wouldn't release cats to us. But, within days, they're shipping them across the country," says Cat Haven founder and board member Lilla Whitehead of Baton Rouge.
The national rescue agencies tell a different story.
"It was a work-in-progress," explains the ASPCA's Morris. "The first concern was rescue and then giving the animals the best chance to be reunited."
In addition, HSUS' Rubin says, "We were mandated by the state to reunite the animals with owners by using large 501(c)(3) organizations such as the Houston SPCA, which had the ability to bunch out bigger groups [of animals] and track them better."
The volume and speed of transfers resulted in scant documentation, and unreliable data further diminished the potential of recovery by owners. In fact, Tiny (Dorothy Wright's cream-colored poodle) was identified as a black poodle, and Columbo ( Rivers Jacques' golden retriever) became an Irish Setter.
Along with the search-and-rescue teams and climate-controlled 18-wheelers destined for shelters from Boca Raton, Fla., to Alberta, Canada, came camera crews from Animal Planet and other networks and film producers. Images broadcast on cable channels and featured in Internet downloads made for compelling television -- and many thousands of dollars in donations.
All the while, the shelter's population grew exponentially -- as did the number of volunteers, veterinarians, professional animal rescue personnel and their conflicting processes. Add to that the late-summer swelter (with its predictable effects on out-of-state volunteers) and tornadoes spawned by Hurricane Rita -- and it's easy to see how turnover, burnout and confusion grew with every shift change.
But that was just the beginning.
When Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley threatened to close down the facility because of overcrowding, the fur really flew -- literally. Pets began jetting away on planes chartered by mogul T. Boone Pickens, U.S. Sen. John McCain and Palm Beach's Peggy Adams Animal League, among others. Soon, the line blurred between an owned pet and a stray as pressure mounted to fill crates for high-profile humanitarians.
"Some dogs -- even those with addresses and collars -- were brought in at 7 p.m., and by 10 a.m. the next morning, they were headed out for shipment. There was no way an owner could locate a dog in less than 24 hours," says Sharla Roussel, president of Creole Poodle Club of New Orleans, who volunteered at the site. "At that point, I thought, 'This is about money, politics and photo shoots. It's not about reuniting owners with their pets.'"
In hindsight, Roussel suggests the money may have been better spent on creating a local, air-conditioned tent city organized by breed.
"People [from New Orleans] are still living in shelters or with relatives," says APAWS' Robinson. "How can they even know how to claim their dogs if they're living out of state? How can they have Internet access when they don't even have a telephone?"
Since activities at Lamar-Dixon ceased, local rescues have leveraged their experiences and contacts to help owners such as Jacques and Wright pursue even the smallest of leads. Unfortunately, despite Wright's and Roussel's inquiries, Tiny's whereabouts remain a mystery. However, on Nov. 2, two months after he was forced to abandon his retrievers, Jacques identified Nicodemus in an emailed photo sent by Susan Martin, a Florida volunteer with Stealth, a group of computer super-sleuths who use Internet databases to locate Katrina pet owners based on I.D. and rabies tag information.
Since Sept. 23, Nicodemus had been with Darleen Wheelington of Oasis shelter in Camden, Ark. He arrived by way of a Lake Charles shelter, where his paperwork was lost after staff members hurried to evacuate 500 animals just before Hurricane Rita turned toward southwest Louisiana.
"We're all going to learn so many lessons from this disaster," Wheelington says. "We knew about Petfinder, but no one ever told us there was an emergency network. Many of the dogs [we took in] had several paper collars with [Lamar-Dixon intake] numbers that didn't mean anything to me. [When we found I.D. tags], we kept calling numbers that were never answered. We had pictures posted on our Petfinder site, but who thinks to look at our small shelter in Camden? We would get a lead, and it would bomb on us. That's why I was so glad to hear from Susan with the Stealth group.
"We have six or seven more I know are somebody's loved dogs that they are desperate for," Wheelington says. "It's just making the connection to find them. There is so much joy in delivering them back home."
Nicodemus and Columbo are now in foster care at the Butts' home in Houma until Jacques can rebuild his house. Still, Roussel remains haunted by the ones who got away: "How can we be sure we can find [Louisiana pets] that need to be rescued -- the old and sick ones who will probably not be adoptable? We [local rescue agencies] were too small for the prime directive to get them out [of Lamar-Dixon]. Now, we need to go through the normal rescue process to stop them from being put down."
Thousands of New Orleans pets have been separated from their owners for nearly four months and are living in temporary quarters at far-flung shelters. And, most animal rescue groups sadly concede, despite the human misery it may wreak, oftentimes the only humane course is to find the unclaimed pets new permanent homes.