"It was a massacre," said Mark Steinway, co-founder of Pasado’s Safe Haven, an animal welfare refuge in Sultan, Wash. "Dogs were shot in the hindquarters, shot in the gut, shot in the feet, in the mouth. It was very, very gruesome."
On Oct. 2, New Orleans attorney Elaine Comiskey filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court Eastern District of Louisiana on behalf of more than 15 plaintiffs seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the wrongful destruction of their pets. Nearly 20 St. Bernard Parish sheriff’s deputies stand accused.
Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. is conducting a separate investigation. Under Louisiana law animal cruelty is considered a felony. The maximum sentence for cruelly killing an animal is 10 years.
In all his years investigating cases of animal cruelty, Steinway said he has never seen anything that remotely approaches what occurred in three schools in St. Bernard Parish in the days following Hurricane Katrina. The bullet-riddled bodies of dozens of household pets littered the tiled hallways, some allegedly executed after they had been leashed and tied up by their owners.
Among the allegedly massacred was Gigi, an 8-pound, 7-year-old white toy poodle with red painted nails and a collar medallion of St. Francis Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
Gigi’s owner, Judy Migliori, brought the poodle to St. Bernard High School, a shelter of last resort, after the floodwaters engulfed her Violet home. Moments after she arrived at the shelter, police ushered her into a boat headed for higher ground.
Migliori clutched Gigi to her breast as she climbed onto the flat-bottom deck. She said a man with a hunting rifle stopped her, pointed at the dog and said pets were not allowed.
"I started crying and pleading and he said — I’ll never forget this — he said, ‘Ma’am, we can do it one of two ways: nicely or not nicely, and if need be I’ll handcuff you.’"
Migliori left Gigi behind after police assured her and the other pet owners their animals would be safe inside the school.
Weeks after the storm, reports circulated about the alleged slaughter of dozens of household pets in the three St. Bernard schools used as shelters — St. Bernard High School, Beauregard Middle School and Sebastien Roy Elementary School.
Steinway left the animal rescue shelter he established in Raceland post-hurricane to investigate.
Nothing, he said, could have prepared him for what he saw inside those buildings.
"There were bullets everywhere, shotgun shells everywhere, holes in the walls, holes in the floors," Steinway said. "It was obvious someone was just chasing these dogs around the school wildly shooting at them."
Among the animal carcasses was a small, white poodle with red-painted nails and a St. Francis of Assisi medallion. Gigi died of a gunshot to the head.
"I had a little bag of food for her and a bottle of water I shared with her," said Migliori. "I’d pour the water in a cap and she would drink a little bit at a time. She was safe with me and I could have taken care of her. We loved her so much and she was murdered. I grieve for her every day."
St. Bernard Sheriff mum
The St. Bernard Sheriff’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit which is expected to go to court sometime early next year. It issued a written statement denying the charges and declaring any actions taken were done with the "utmost care, caution and belief of its necessity" in a time of emergency.
St. Bernard deputies allegedly told Steinway they were under shoot-to-kill orders for dogs potentially packing up and becoming dangerous. Others were supposedly put out of their misery since they would most likely starve to death anyway.
Kelly Jenkins, founder of Metairie-based Pet Justice Project, said the breeds of dogs found shot in the schools — dachshunds, schnauzers, Pomeranians and miniature poodles — presented little danger of "packing up" and terrorizing the community.
Based on the carnage he saw inside the schools, Steinway disputes officers’ claims they killed animals to spare them from suffering.
"There was no attempt to euthanize these animals," Steinway said. "It almost appeared to be target practice, an exercise that was fun for them."
Necropsies performed on the animals by the Louisiana State University Department of Veterinary Pathology showed gunshots to the chest, abdomen, spine and face, which did not indicate mercy killings, Steinway said.
Comiskey and Steinway said the attorney general’s office has been uncooperative and doubt the seriousness of its investigation.
"I’ve gotten a crash course in Louisiana politics," Steinway said. "I thought the AG’s office was on our side and that they were going to vigorously pursue this and nothing like that has happened. It has gotten squashed from day one."
Foti’s office denied the charges and said the investigation is proceeding. Spokesperson Kris Wartelle said part of the case may soon go before a grand jury.
Other animal killings
Not all alleged pet killings took place in school shelters.
On Sept. 7, 2005, according to the lawsuit, an unidentified St. Bernard deputy removed a plaintiff and her daughter from their homes at gunpoint. The plaintiff allegedly remains anonymous for fear of reprisals from the sheriff’s department.
The report states the plaintiff went inside her house to retrieve some personal belongings, leaving her dog, Hooch, with deputies outside. She then heard two gunshots.
"Her dog, ‘Hooch,’ entered the house and ran upstairs," according to the report. "Blood splatter covered his body and half his face (was) shot off. Plaintiff clearly recalls her final moments with Hooch, in which he seemed to be saying goodbye. His agony was real."
Neither Comiskey nor Jenkins believes the plaintiffs will receive cash settlements. They say the purpose of the lawsuit is to bring alleged perpetrators to justice and to redefine domesticated animals under the law as something more than inanimate possessions.
"In the eyes of the law there’s not much difference between your pet and a mailbox," Jenkins said.
Marilyn David, an adjunct professor at Tulane University Law School, is teaching an animal law course for the first time next semester. It is important to update laws that in many cases are hundreds of years old, David said.
"This isn’t a push for animal rights; it’s a push to protect animal welfare and to recognize that your aunt’s Chihuahua is worth more than a chair. It’s a reflection of our culture and how we treat our animals."
St. Bernard resident John Bozes said he will never forget the day he returned to Beauregard Middle School to retrieve the remains of Angel Girl, his 2-year-old black Labrador retriever.
"When we walked into the school, we could smell the death in there," Bozes said. "We went to Room 203 and we found the dogs. They were all shot. I knelt in Angel Girl’s blood. I still have nightmares about it."•