Note that volunteers are still needed for animal rescue in the areas flooded by Katrina.
by Matt Schreiner
Sept. 17 2005
Animal Rescue in New Orleans experience
I'm still trying to decompress from my three days in Louisiana helping out with the Pasado's Safe Haven animal rescue crew. Mere words don't seem to be enough to describe the experience, but I'll try. When I heard that there was a PAWS of Austin caravan, I KNEW I had to go. If there is only one thing in life "Wookies" like myself (6'3", 260lbs, lineman build) are good for it's "Open That". :) Two days later I was in New Orleans.
First off, animal shootings in the city are not happening. Apparently there was one bozo cop that did shoot a dog, but in general the cops and national guard troops are being VERY good to those rescue orgs entering the city and the animals that need rescuing. We certainly got scrutinized at a checkpoint or two (and there are a LOT), but we always got waved through after a minute or two. The area we worked was at I-10, Canal street, and down to just about St. Alexander street where the flooding was still too deep - maps can be viewed at:
For the first 4 hours, a team of 18 people (4 teams of 4 broken into to two teams of two so you didn't have to cross the street through the 6" of sewage running down the road while searching houses, 2 people at the "triage" base station) found only one dog. A Chihuahua who had been locked in the house without food and water (the norm). There was a bathtub filled with water, which at the time we thought was left for the dog which didn't make sense as the dog wouldn't have been able to get to it, and if so, wouldn't have been able to get out, but I realized later it must have been for the owners. Turned out, the HS-US had been through that zone the previous day right after it was drained, but didn't mark the grid off or spray the houses. We moved south until we started to hear dogs barking and we finally started making progress. The HS-US showed up in the afternoon, which is how we found out they had been there, and worked a combined search the rest of the day with them searching west and south of Banks and us going east and south. We hit water at Alexander, about waist deep, so our Pasado's search teams broke into wet and dry search teams.
The wet teams had almost no luck. In the next 4 hours, they only managed to find a few dogs, but those of us on the dry team found many. My partner and I found 18 that afternoon. The conditions of the animals was extremely varied. We found a pair of pitbulls that we VERY sweet, and were honestly the roundest dogs I've seen in my life. They had been surviving on fat stores for the two weeks and didn't look a BIT the worse for wear, and were still seriously obese, if not in serious need of fresh water. Nothing like kicking open a door with dogs barking on the other side, to find yourself looking at two pitbulls that are not at all sure if your one of the "good guys" or not. :) Luckily, these were the typical pitts that want northing more than tummy rubs and to be told just how good of dogs they are. Tho, putting a loop leash around their necks proved to be mighty difficult, considering from shoulders to nose was a constant taper in the form of a triangle. ;)
We also found some that broke our hearts they were so bad and barely hanging on to life. I have no idea at all how many of these animals survived here. The water was very deep, about 14-18 feet in some places, with the waterline over the roofs of some houses. Most of the houses were the "shotgun" style, a new home style for me, where it's a duplex that's a series of 5-8 rooms, all in a line, front to back. Between each room was typically bedsheets hung as privacy curtains I guess. Living room in front, bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, was the typical order of the rooms, with a small shared back yard.
For conducting the search, you'd beat on the door and sides of the house, yelling out "Animal Rescue! Animal Rescue!" with the general rule being you could not yell it too loud, or too often. While we never ran into a home owner, there was always that possibility, and we'd really rather not end up shot with someone thinking we were a looter or something. If there was a dog inside, they would typically start barking when you started banging. If there was no answer, you'd peer inside and look for feces and other telltale signs like "beware of dog" signs, leashes, puppy Santa pictures, what have you... if we thought there might still be an animal inside, we'd go in. Sometimes this was easy, sometimes it was not. I commandeered a bat for knocking on doors and a fire axe from a shed which made entry far easier, but most times it just took one or two "Wookie nudges" to gain entry.
We'd find dogs that would saunter up to us and look for love, one was at the door barking when we knocked but when I kicked the door it went silent. By the time we got in, he was nowhere to be found. After extensive searching I finally found him hiding in the last room in the house, hiding in the closet behind some clothes. Flashlights were a requirement once you got inside most times. The houses had been under water for two weeks, and the floors were treacherous, with boards giving way under foot quite often. (NOTE: Anyone considering Pergo... reconsider if you live in a flood plain! Think Tile!!!) with windows and walls coated with slime, sewage, and mold.
Probably my favorite rescue was a male Rott. He had been spotted by a human rescue crew, and had spray painted "1 dog" on the front of the house. We went in and found they had left food for him, but not water. We found a gallon water jug in the fridge (we were out of water for ourselves at this point and had none to share with him) and tried that first. There was feces everywhere, but no dog to be found. Then I heard him upstairs. We went up, and found out why the HS-US had left his the previous day... he was growling and active VERY uneasy about strangers in his house. We tried coaxing him to us for about 15 minutes with water and cookies, before I told my partner to let me try. When you'd approach him, he'd put his head down and growl while backing away, if you stopped and backed up his ears would go up and he'd approach you a bit. I tried for
2-3 minutes before I decided to use his behavior to my advantage. I backed him into the last room in the house, up onto a bed, and into a corner. He was trapped, nowhere to go, butt in the corner. I was able to get him with the snare stick, and WOW did he fight. He had been a big boy before the flood, but was down to about 75 lbs now, probably about 20 lbs light, but still PLENTY strong. We tussled about a minute, then I made my way out of the house with him. After about 5 minutes outside I had him eating cookies out of my hand and getting scratches behind his ears. He is a very gentle soul and was obviously just was freaked out and terrified. He's in Austin now in foster care, and we have his address so hopefully will be able to find his owners and return him. Here is a pic of him being vetted at the Pasado's shelter:
We did find death, tho far less than I expected. I have no idea how some survived. One was SOOO sick. He had been on a 4 foot chain, padlocked to the bottom of a post and his collar. The water level there was almost over the roof. He should have drown, but there he was in the back yard, still chained. maybe the structure floated and he was able to climb onto something, who knows. I couldn't find bolt-cutters, but was able to cut his collar off without cutting him, to free him. Pasado's had to euthanize one of the dogs we rescued today, and of all the ones we hauled in, I suspect it's him. He was in seriously rough shape. I'll be trying to find out who it was and if it was him. I VERY clearly remember which house he was pulled from... anyway... here is a picture of him back at the Pasado's shelter getting vetted and an IV, I hope it wasn't him:
Most dogs were easy to catch, as they were so weak, hungry, and thirsty. First order of business was getting them water, then we would take a picture of them with the ID cards we carried with us, take a picture of the card with the address, and leave the card someplace the owners could find so they would know their animal had been rescued, what it's rescue ID number was, and the contact info to call. We went to great lengths to make sure we knew we could associate which animals went to which homes, with reuniting them with their owners one day in mind. The strays we captured are going to have a harder time, but not many owners are trying to reclaim animals yet, with many trying to find family members so...
Sometimes we'd not hear anything, not see any obvious signs of an animal in the house, but just have a feeling... you'd go in, and find 2 or 3 rooms in the feces, and a dog in the back cowering. Sometimes you'd see "big dog" feces everywhere, go in, and not find anything at all. It was a total mixed bag. I know some houses had dogs that just were not barking, and many had blinds up that we couldn't see through, so some were left behind, but there just was not time to do a house by house search without a clue or feeling that something might have been home. We did find one dead dog, but considering the number of houses searched and dogs found, I'm shocked it was that little. We found more dead cats than anything, mostly ones that were either declawed or very young. One house, well, SOMETHING was dead in there, but we dared not venture further to find out just what. As soon as I opened the door it hit us like a wave, and that smell was death. Nothing in there was alive, so we moved on to the next house and continued the search. You just gotta keep moving sometimes...
Some were found on porches, with MRE rations strewn about, obvious signs their humans had been evac'd and forced to leave their animals behind. Many times in the houses we would find suitcases half packed, ladders leading into attics, firearms and ammo out and at the ready, and everything a shambles. The news is doing a good job of showing what that city went through, and it's a warzone of hell, fire, and brimstone if I've ever seen it. When you see the pictures on TV, many figure they are showing the cherry picked sites that showcase the worst damage they could find... well, not in this case. It's bad. REALLY bad. Tornadoes level everything in their path, but try to imagine a tornado survivor then being dropped in a bucket for two weeks, and you get the idea of what it's like. Nothing was spared.
As for military and police, I can't say it enough, these guys are helping rescue. We'd be working a house, banging around, breaking doors and windows, carrying around bats, axes, crowbars, whatnot, and a guardsman would run up, rifle in hand, and hand you a strip of paper with a scrawled address on it, with a wild look on their face and say "There are two dogs stranded in this house, we can't get them, can you please come help?!" and you'd jump into the back of the transport and they would drive you there, open the house for you (I think they really enjoyed that part), and once you had the animals, paperwork done, and were ready to go they would give us a lift back to the triage station. Same for the cops. Heck, even utility workers were telling us where there were stranded or loose animals. They are worried about the animals, and we many times would recruit them to help if we needed a tree moved or something that required more than one Wookie horsepower of heavy lifting to get access to a yard or house. They were too happy to help, even when it meant stepping out of their heavy transport into the slippery sewage of a street that we were all working in. Other teams that did not have a Wookie for a partner regularly called on troops and cops to open houses and doors for them that they were unable to (Second note: anyone that thinks their French doors are secure, think again! Even the ones with bolts top and bottom with multiple deadbolts between the two doors. I could go through one of those in less than 20 seconds with ease without breaking the glass even. They blow apart / open with far less force than I ever expected.) The checkpoints are a mix of safety barricades telling folks where they can pass and where they are making sure that folks are behaving themselves. The roving patrols of heavy transports are everywhere, and the only real traffic in the city was military patrols, utility workers, police, and news crews. We even managed to get a lift from one news photographer gal that drove us and a dog we'd pulled out of a house on Canal street 5 blocks from the triage station toward the end of the day and were not looking forward to the hike back with the pup in tow.
We would start each morning before dawn, and go straight to walking dogs, cleaning cages, watering, feeding, and updating paperwork. There were sleeping volunteers on the ground, in cars, on benches pulled out of the rental vans, everywhere you could find a flat surface. We'd end the days typically around 3am, there was just that much that needed doing. Nobody lounged, and when somebody DID stop moving for a minute, you left them alone to rest. Everyone was working incredibly hard. Dinner was served at 10pm, and for most of us, that was the only time that day we ate. It was a LITTLE tricky, as more than half the rescuers were vegetarians, and of those many were vegans. Fortunately I'd brought along 10lbs of venison sausage with me, which I shared gladly with a few of the other "meat eaters" who were especially grateful on day 2 when dinner was vegan lasagne... no cheese, meat, or pasta... yeah, I'm not sure how that qualified as "lasagna" either, but it was warm and tasty... and the eggplant "noodles" weren't nearly as bad as I feared they might be :)
When day 3 was "finished" at the Pasado's shelter, with all the crews packed up and headed either into the city or to the Gonzales shelter, we finished helping with walking / feeding / vetting the dogs there and finished loading the cars and dogs we were taking back. We hauled 4 rotts, 2 labs, 2 Scottish terriers, and one poodle back with us to Austin to waiting foster homes. One of the rotts was the one that I had rescued that previous afternoon, as well as both labs and the terriers. That was extremely rewarding, knowing that 5 of the nine were saved by my hand the previous afternoon.
There are still thousands of animals to save, but with hopefully citizens being allowed back into the city soon, folks will start to save them on their own. The Pasado's crew was amazing to work with. The Gonzales shelter is reported as being very confusing, and some folks are reporting that they are being turned away, but none of our rescuers were. The place is overflowing with animals, and volunteers are badly needed. Just think about how much time it would take to feed, water, and keep the crates cleaned for 20 dogs, or 200, or the 1000 that they have, and you get an idea of how much work is being done there. If folks can spare the time, and get airmiles donated or what have you, I strongly recommend going. They need help. Pack the tent, clothes, rubber boots and gloves, and pitch in. It's really just something you'd have to see to believe, and they desperately need the help.
I was able to take a few photographs... nothing in the city. I wanted to, but there just wasn't time. We were running everywhere, and every time we turned around we were running someplace else... In three days, I only took 7 pictures, and 4 of those were back in Austin of my rescue Rott buddy that I just had to get a pic of, but they can all be viewed here:
If folks have any questions, send 'em on to me directly, and I'm happy to answer, but there is more than a books worth of text I could write, and I've now prattled on long enough at this point. I hope that some of this helps to paint an accurate firsthand experience of what it's like "in the zone", or at least what I saw and experienced.
Matt Schreiner A.K.A. Cyber mailto:Cyber@WetLeather.Com