Local animal rescue team in New Orleans: ‘I knew we were doing the right thing’

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Editor’s Note: The following is the second of a three part series written by Mike Cooney about a team of local residents who recently returned from the Gulf Coast area in an attempt to help rescue displaced animals. In this second column, the team works its way through the bureaucracy to get back into New Orleans.

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Gil Thompson relates the devastation of Katrina:

“If you took Louisville and New Albany and wiped them off the map. Then if you took a six mile path of the Ohio River from Louisville to Cincinnati, and a six mile path from Louisville to Lexington, and wiped them out, you would still not have as much devastation as was left by Katrina.”

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Thursday morning the team headed back into New Orleans. This time though, they passed the first checkpoint, the National Guard turned them back once they got into the city. With President Bush due in the city and since there were so many unauthorized people getting into the city and stealing everything including animals, all the passes were canceled in favor of a special federal pass.

The Guardsman told them they would have to leave the city.

“Now!”

Gil told him: “I never argue with a man with a machine gun.” He then told the Guardsmen how much he appreciated what they were doing for the city and for the volunteers.

With an armed military escort, and Black Hawk helicopters hovering overhead, the team turned around and left the city, and returned to Lamar-Dixon. While leaving the city, a large convoy of black SUVs with very dark tinted windows went by. It was later learned that this convey was the advance security team for President Bush’s visit.

On the way back to Lamar-Dixon, the team took a much-needed break when they found a Shoney’s Big Boy restaurant that was open. They stopped and had a hot, cooked meal with real knives and forks. It was a break from reality. It seemed like a little piece of heaven.

Once back at Lamar-Dixon, Gil Thompson took on the chore of finding the proper application for the required federal permit, and to get the application approved. In order to get the permit, the team had to give their drivers licenses to one of the volunteers, who immediately left with them. They didn’t know her name or where she was going. All they knew was that they now had no permit and no driver’s licenses.

Their new applications were approved, but they couldn’t pick up the required credentials until Friday night. Though the team had planned to return to Indiana on Saturday, they changed their plans and prepared to head back into the city on Saturday.

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By Thursday, there were over 3,000 animals at Lamar-Dixon, including more than 400 horses. Another 1,000 animals were expected by Saturday.

The conditions at Lamar-Dixon had improved 10-fold. There were barn leaders, and team leaders. Everyone had an assigned task. There were handlers who took the animals from the trucks and vans to the intake area and then to the veterinarians. There were dog walkers; those who fed and watered; those who bathed the animals; those who cleaned the crates; those who groomed, etc. Each volunteer was given a specific duty.

At the same time, some animals had been taken out to rescue groups. There was a constant turnover as people came looking for their animals, and if lucky, reunited with them. Other animals were moved from quarantine to the general population, or from the general population to quarantine. With each movement, records had to be kept so the possibility of reuniting with the rightful owners was still there.

There were cages ready for the newly arriving animals. There were several people assigned to assemble new cages that had been donated. There were fans that had been put up, and more fans waiting to be put up, to improve air circulation. The Indiana team assisted in putting up many of the remaining fans.

While everything else was going on, Judy Gray spent the day cleaning cat cages and making sure cats were fed and watered. She ended up being asked to teach other volunteers what to do, and how to do it.

Thursday Cheryl and Marie worked together. They had seen and felt so much trauma, it was comforting to be with someone you knew. They would each take an aisle and check on each dog to see if anything needed to be done for them. At the end of the aisle, Cheryl and Marie would give each other a quick hug, and say, “We can do this,” and then start on two more aisles. The comforting hug helped keep the situation from completely overwhelming them.

With the changes that had been made, instead of the two hours it took to go down an aisle on Tuesday, you could complete an aisle in 15 minutes. If you found a dog that had defecated in his crate, you hollered out the location and the problem, and one person would come get the dog to clean him up and another volunteer would come to clean up the crate. You could then go back to your duties. This sped up the intake and care process tremendously.

On Thursday night, the military and the Animal Enforcement Agency went into a Winn-Dixie grocery store where people had been collecting pets. There were over 300 animals there with no running water and no electricity. Dogs were laying in their own feces and urine. Many were sick or injured. The New Orleans police went in to clear out the people, followed by the military. The Lamar-Dixon volunteers prepared to receive the 300-plus animals. When the animals were rescued, most were so sick that they had to be euthanized on the spot. Lamar-Dixon received very few of the 300 that were expected.

Thursday night when the team got back to the campgrounds, there was a family sitting on the back of their trailer. Two hours later, they were still there. When Gil went and talked to them, they told him they had had to evacuate from their home and leave their two dogs behind. They did have someone who was able to check on them and make sure food and water was available, but they didn’t know how they were doing. They were waiting for a lady who had rescued the dogs, and after going through the intake process at Lamar-Dixon, she was going to bring the dogs to them. The reunion was emotional, and gratifying.

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On Friday, Gil remembers what was probably his best experience.

“I took a Cocker Spaniel from intake. It had been in the muddy water for two weeks. You could tell it had been a family pet. It was well groomed, but he was now caked with mud. I took him to a volunteer groomer to get him cleaned up and groomed.

“While waiting with the Cocker Spaniel, there was a woman with a dog that was really skittish. As we were sitting there, two Japanese men walked by. They said something to one another. One of them walked back to the lady and reached his hand to the dog. The lady told him to be careful; the dog was really skittish and probably wouldn’t come near him. The man reached out and the dog walked up to him and lay down on the ground and lay his head on the man’s foot and rolled over on his back so the man could rub his stomach. The lady looked at him and said: “this dog won’t go near anybody.”

The man looked at her and said: “I rescued him.”

“The lady looked at him with tears in her eyes and said: “Here, hold him for a minute. I have to go for a walk.”

Gil says: “When that happened, I knew we were doing the right thing.”

Gil had a similar experience. One of the first dogs he took in was a big pit bull. The dog didn’t like Gil at first, but warmed up to him. By the end of the week, every time Gil walked by, the dog would be lying quietly until he saw Gil. He would then start barking at Gil, wanting to go for a walk. Gil would take a few minutes out of his schedule to take him for his walk.

Everyone got attached to some of the animals they worked with. Mike spent hour after hour walking dogs. He became attached to more than one. And, several appeared to wait for Mike before asking for their daily walk.

Marie got attached to a Labrador Retriever that was pregnant and ready to give birth.

“At first she was confined in the general population area with all the other dogs. But, on the day we left, she was moved to a private area where she could have her puppies without thousands of dogs and thousands of volunteers watching. I also got attached to a little kitten that probably weighed eight ounces. She was just a bone with a little fur on it.

“During the week, when I would need to take a break I would get a bottle of water, go check on the pregnant dog, go check on the skinny cat, and then go back to work. Checking on them made me feel better. I was worried about them.”

On Friday morning, Carol, who had been working in the Cat Barn, was asked to take the responsibility of Cat Barn Manager for the day. She was given a list of things that needed to be completed, including cleaning an area for the MASH unit that was coming in. There was a sick cat whose owner was coming. The cat had to be taken to the vet. This was in addition to intake, feeding and watering, cleaning of cats and cages, and all the other necessary chores.

Barn Two held dogs that could not be moved. They could not be walked. They were either on antibiotics too regularly or under observation too closely. They were wounded, injured, or chronically ill. On Friday, though each stall had a fan, the stall doors were shut and there was almost no air circulation. The Indiana team demanded more air be given to the dogs. The barn manager responded. Within an hour there were fans being put up. Within two hours every dog could get some air circulation.

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Cheryl spent much of her time helping work with people who were looking for their animals. She would take information from the people and search for their animals. Cheryl says: “It was very rewarding when we could find an animal, and reunite it with its owner.”

By the end of the week, instead of just helping the animals, people were trying to help each other. Barn leaders would suggest a break when someone was obviously exhausted. Veterinarians would ask if you were okay. Volunteers you had never met offered help.

As for the Indiana team, they say: “All of the volunteers ended up being so overwhelmed by the situation and just the fact that we hadn’t slept in days, and it was so hot, and we were drinking 10 to 12 bottles of water a day and a couple of bottles of Gatorade and hoping that was enough. Even though everyone was trying to do so well, I guess sleep deprivation has its good and its bad. We would get back at the end of the day, and end up laughing because laughing was better than crying. You could also just sit there and cry. Tempers were on edge. Everybody realized we were going through a situation that none of us had ever experienced before, or had any control over.”

Friday night the rains came. Gil was handling the intake table.

“When it rains, everything stops. The animals are coming in from contaminated areas. If they get wet and shake, they can spread whatever disease they might have picked up. As a result, all the animals waiting to be received had to sit in their cages on the trucks. There were more than 20 trucks backed up waiting to be unloaded when the rain came. They had to wait several hours for the rain to stop so they could be unloaded.”

When the team returned to camp that night, the tent was flooded. So, after a long day’s work, everything had to be cleared from the tent and cleaned up. At the same time, the team had to get ready for their trip into New Orleans the following day.

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On Saturday morning the team returned to New Orleans. They went into Orleans Parish. The houses there had had 7-10 feet of standing water for more than a week. The water was gone, but everything was mud and muck. The smell was overwhelming.

The team again put food and water out on the corners. They checked behind fences, under porches, and anywhere else there might be animals that needed help.

The military was very helpful and supportive all week. On Saturday, they would come up to the team and tell them where they thought animals were stranded, or in need of help.

Utility workers and insurance people would also stop the team and give them directions to locations where animals might be stranded. The team checked each location.

When the team first got to the city on Saturday, a New Orleans policeman came up to them and gave them four gallons of water for the animals. He said: “This is all I’ve got. Give it to the animals”.

After thanking the policemen, they then left to continue the food and water program. Each time an animal was spotted, or located, the description of the animal and the location were written down so that rescue teams that followed would have an idea where to look.

The most disturbing experience of the week came Saturday when the team heard a cat crying from somewhere overhead. The cat was obviously distressed. When they called to it, it would answer back. They finally determined the cat was stuck somewhere above the carport of a house. Gil went into the house to search for the cat. Nothing was there, but he could still hear the cat crying. He tried to find an entrance to the attic, but couldn’t. He then climbed on the roof and opened a hole in the roof so a cat stuck in the attic could get some air and have a way to escape if he could get to it. After about 20 minutes, the cat stopped crying. He no longer responded to the calls from the team.

“It took all he had to cry for as long as he did.”

He had been in the hot attic with no ventilation for two weeks without food or water. The team was unable to find him. Unable to save him. The memory of his cries still haunts each member of the team.

As the Saturday curfew approached, an insurance agent who had heard an animal that was stranded in a house stopped the team. The team made the decision to ignore the curfew and go look for the stranded pet. When they arrived at the house, they did not hear anything, and after a quick search of the house found no animals.

Leaving the city after curfew, the team got to a major thoroughfare and immediately encountered the National Guard. They asked what the team was doing. After explaining the situation, the Guard thanked them for their efforts and sent them on the way.

On the way out, it got dark. When it got dark, it got really dark. There were no lights from houses or neon signs to help light the sky. There were no stars in the sky to light the ground. There was only darkness. It was so dark, and with most of the landmarks gone, the team had a hard time finding their way out of New Orleans.

Sunday morning was moving day. Everything had to be packed and readied for the trip back to Switzerland County. The trip back was uneventful.