Tiny Heartbeats Amid Katrina's Wreckage
By Brenda Shoss, 11/14/05
"We have her," rescuer Jane Garrison says.
Three simple words. But for an 84-year-old woman in a Baton Rouge intensive
care unit, they are reason to live. This Katrina victim's cat is alive,
seven weeks after the storm.
As hurricane headlines vanish from daily news, a little dog named Bingo is
found in a bathtub too weak to lift her head. A skin-and-bones Doberman mix
is plucked from the trash. Some burrow under homes or linger in familiar
yards. They are stealth shadows, glimpsed after dark. Many companion animals
still fend for themselves in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita.
On October 1, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) left the
state-designated shelter in Gonzales, LA. Garrison, a volunteer who managed
HSUS rescue operations, now directs Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO), one of
few recovery missions left in New Orleans.
"Many of these animals are people's companions who escaped their homes when
doors and windows blew open. It would be completely unethical to allow them
to die on the streets," says Garrison, who struggles to recruit enough
volunteers to dispense food/water at over 2,000 locations in and around New
My own commitment to these animals began shortly after Katrina hit. That's
when I found my four-year-old son, a Cartoon Network junkie, glued to CNN
"Mommy," he explained, "I want to see if the people get out of their broken
I wept for the people adrift on tree branches and floating down streets. But
in the same instant, I knew who would be overlooked: Outgoing boys with
floppy paws. A spoiled princess who slept on their beds. A soft tabby who
nestled in their laps.
In early September Kinship Circle, a nonprofit animal advocacy organization,
formed an alliance with Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), a no-kill shelter in
Mobile, Alabama. Under the banner
Grassroots Effort for Animals of the
Storm, ARF's Julia Fischer and I mobilized volunteers and supplies to over
80 shelters and triage sites across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and
Truckloads of cages, live traps, hay and horse feed left our storehouse in
Mobile. By mid-October, we'd distributed over 20,000 pounds of animal food,
1,000 pounds of kitty litter, 500 crates, $5,000 worth of vaccines, $10,000
in veterinary supplies, 10 pallets of water, and more than 5,000 bowls,
leashes, collars, and toys.
About the time my son thought Mommy had mutated with her computer and phone,
evacuee Brenda Johnson called. She begged me to find her dog, an 11-year-old
Yorkshire terrier trapped in an apartment on Roger Drive in New Orleans
East. "Can you save our Spike? He's big, probably 15 pounds. We thought we'd
be back in a couple of days..."
As Brenda spoke I overhead children, an aunt, a niece and a brother from her
crowded hotel room. I also heard the despair in her voice.
I filed reports and perused lost pet photos. I granted rescuers permission
to break into Brenda's apartment. But with each passing day I wondered,
"Will the heat, starvation, or water finally take him?"
Spike's uncertain fate haunted me. His salvation, along with tens of
thousands of stranded companion animals, seemed contingent on little more
than chance. Eleven days post-Katrina, rescuer Paul Berry of Best Friends in
Kanab, Utah, wrote: "You hear fluff pieces on TV about people reunited with
their pets. But [from the boats] you see this vast, endless wasteland of
toxic water... and animals clinging to life."
Some nights, my friend Tim Gorski phoned from the Winn Dixie parking lot
while volunteering with Grass Roots Animal Rescue. Behind his voice, I heard
barks and howls cast into the darkness.
In retrospect, a strategy to accommodate animals might have lowered the
human death toll. On September 8, CNN listed "People won't leave their pets"
as a chief reason some 10,000 stragglers would not vacate their homes under
Mayor Ray Nagin's mandatory evacuations.
Any disaster preparedness plan that forces victims to choose between
survival and their animals is a bad plan. Post-Katrina images are
unforgivable: A white dog is ripped from a boy's arms as he boards a bus. A
yellow Lab, marooned on a rooftop, watches his family disappear in a
helicopter. An elderly woman cannot receive medical care unless she deserts
When Katrina hit Plaquemine Parish, south of New Orleans, homes, farms, and
trees were tossed along highways and beaches. Two protective levees
crumbled. Oil tanks exploded, spilling millions of gallons of black crude.
Still, life persevered. Hundreds of dogs swarmed Guardsmen for food and
water. Cats devoured MREs from these kindhearted troops. Bewildered horses
were submerged in water and cows floated in watery fields.
I contacted the New Mexico National Guard to gain entry into "no-go"
Plaquemines. I found a kindred spirit in Major Kimberly Lalley. Soon rescue
teams led by Chris and Sarah Stevens and Terri Kelley of Indiana cleared
security checkpoints with permission from Colonel Dick Almeter.
The problem with the animal disaster plan is that there was no plan--other
than the mercy of volunteers and soldiers.
Once the people search diminished to body retrieval, why didn't the White
House, the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the
states of Louisiana and Mississippi authorize active and reserve component
troops to conduct animal rescue and relief missions?
With human aid well underway, why didn't Governors Blanco and Barbour direct
rescue boats, air-conditioned trucks, medical personnel and other responders
to recover animals?
Instead, the world witnessed an unprecedented phenomenon: Entire ghost towns
filled with dogs, cats, birds and horses. Among them, a beloved Yorkie named
Spike waited beneath a child's bed.
On September 16 Brenda Johnson called me. "They found Spike. He is alive."
This elderly dog, prone to seizures, survived without food or water for more
than two weeks.
My plea for Spike had reached the Jefferson Feed store, a makeshift triage
site in New Orleans. From there, someone named Jennifer contacted Nathalie,
who communicated with ground crews from her home in New Jersey. Finally, two
vet techs with Florida's Collier County Animal League happened to be with
police and firemen when they got Spike's report. Under official escort, they
broke into Brenda's flooded home with a huge "Hello!" for the little Yorkie.
An animal's life often depended upon an out-of-state network in the right
place at the right time. By October's end, guardian requests to find lost
animals still poured in. Yet the state declared local animal control in
charge, essentially ordering non-Louisiana volunteers to go home.
Governor Kathleen Blanco, under advisement from Assistant State Veterinarian
Martha Littlefield, refused to extend Executive Order KBB 2005-35 allowing
licensed veterinarians from other states to temporarily practice in
Louisiana. Already prolonged one month under KBB 2005-43, the order's firm
October 25 termination meant incoming vets risked jail time and fines.
As I write, displaced pets have multiplied New Orleans large stray
population. Many are unsterilized and set to yield even more homeless
puppies and kittens. One study shows a dog and her young can produce 67,000
puppies in six years. A cat and her litter can create 420,000 kittens in
Rottweilers, pits, poodles and cocker spaniels run in packs in St. Bernard
Parish, a ravaged area with no functional animal control. The LA SPCA, head
of animal control in Orleans Parish, does not possess the people power or
accommodations to trap and shelter this many animals.
I'd intended to exit hurricane rescue by Halloween. Instead, I find myself
on-call for ARNO, along with organizers David Meyer and Pia Salk. Kate
Danaher of San Francisco and I field some 300-500 emails daily as Jane
Garrison's volunteer coordinators.
We deploy animal control officers, humane trappers, DVMs and techs from as
far away as Canada. We find hotels, campsites, FEMA tents and resident homes
for volunteers who cannot turn away from Katrina's forgotten.
In November rescuers discovered two dead cats alongside empty food and water
bowls. A third died alone on a barren porch. These animals endured hurricane
and flood only to succumb to starvation. We don't have enough volunteers to
sustain animals until we can trap them. And we fear for the ones huddled
under homes slated for demolition.
I don't know where this story ends. But for me, it all comes back to Spike.
His life is the miracle of strangers connecting across phone lines and
internet. People navigating roads, rivers and ruined towns to salvage 15
pounds of furry love.
Spike is alive and I have a forever friend in Brenda Johnson. This story is
about compassion. It's about saving Spike.
To volunteer for Animal Rescue New Orleans:
Email firstname.lastname@example.org OR
Please do not send your information to both emails.
* Full name / Name of organization (if applicable)
* Street, city, state
* Cell phone, land phone
* Email address
* Brief description of experience working with animals
* ARRIVE/DEPART dates in New Orleans
* Where did you hear about us or see our alert?
Kinship Circle, Best Friends, ARNO website, other blog, website or list?
Type "HURRICANE VOLUNTEER" in the subject line of your email, or we may miss it.