Local animal rescue team share memories of Hurricane Katrina aftermath

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Editor’s Note: The following is the first 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 first column, the team arrives in Louisiana and begins work in the shelters that had been established.

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Cheryl Sieglitz, a member of the Switzerland County team that recently returned from rescue efforts in Louisiana, reflects:

“I’m glad I went. You learn a lot about yourself. You need to know your limits. It was horrific. A war zone is the best way I could describe it. It was surreal. It’s like going into a city the size of Cincinnati and nobody is there except troops. I wouldn’t say that kind of work is for everybody. It is extremely traumatizing. Still, I hope to do other rescue missions after I get my RN degree in a year.”

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On Sunday, September 11th, a team of six Switzerland County residents headed by Carol Conner began an experience they will never forget. The team included Marie Byrd, Gil Thompson, Cheryl Sieglitz, Judy Gray and Mike Conner. Their mission was to assist in the rescue efforts of the animals left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

The trip became eventful immediately. While driving through Kentucky, Carol’s truck started stuttering. She thought it could have been bad gas, could have been weight, or could have been a lot of things. The team had distributed their cell phones so they could communicate. Carol says:

“We were really experiencing trouble with the truck. I was calling saying we are going to pull off at the next exit when the truck just stopped. I yelled in the phone: ‘The Truck is down. I repeat, the truck is down.’ This became our rallying cry for the rest of the week. When the frustrations built, someone would yell, ‘It is down. I repeat, the truck is down’ to relieve tensions.”

The police called a wrecker who would not take any money. He said he would try to fix the truck for them while they were gone. The truck is still there — it wasn’t a bad seal, it was the transmission. He couldn’t fix it.

Once the supplies and equipment from the broken down truck had been moved and repacked with the supplies and equipment in the Geo Tracker, the pick-up, and the trailer, the group headed south. They pulled behind a truck stop to sleep for a couple of hours. Monday morning, they discovered one of the tires on the trailer was flat. Two hours later, they were again on their way to Gonzalez, Louisiana and the Lamar-Dixon fairgrounds that was being used as the main animal rescue center for Katrina’s animals.

As they entered Mississippi it began to look like a tornado had gone down the middle of the highway. Marie says:

“The trees along the road were torn up, but it wasn’t as bad as we expected it to look. Trees were down everywhere. They took bulldozers and cleared the highways. It was just a landscape of discombobulated trees, guardrails, and whatever else happened to be there. The bulldozers made a path through the highway for miles and miles through Mississippi.”

While driving through Mississippi, the team thought if this is this bad, how bad will it be when we get there. They expected there would be nothing left. When they got to New Orleans, what was left was worse than nothing.

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As they got closer to Gonzalez, they could tell there wouldn’t be much. The stores were all closed, the signs were down. They found an open gas station just north of Slidell. The station had no ice, no water. They did have gas and it was only $2.45 a gallon. Slidell, which is north of Lake Pontchartrain, was totally destroyed.

As the day wore on, it was obvious the team would not make Gonzalez in time to get checked in and to begin work. They decided to check into a motel to get some sleep for the night. They were told the nearest motel with a vacancy was near the Texas border.

About 30 miles from Gonzalez, the team found a KOA campsite that, even though full with refugees from Katrina, allowed them to set up their tent in a field next to the campgrounds. It was decided to stay there since it was unknown if facilities were available closer to Gonzalez. The team ended up being about 30 miles away from the Lamar-Dixon rescue center, which is the Louisiana State Fairgrounds.

Tuesday morning the team headed for the Lamar-Dixon facility. It is a huge place with barns and stalls and everything set up for animals, but not designed for them to live there.

Marie remembers:

“When we got there the sound of the hundreds and hundreds of dogs barking was just overwhelming.”

The team was hurried through check-in and registration, and immediately sent to Barn Five to help handle the dogs. Carol, being a cat person, quickly went from the dogs to the cats in Barn One

The first day there was very depressing. Carol says:

“I thought what was going on there might be doing more harm than good. Because all the animals were confined. It was so hot, it was overwhelming. You couldn’t breath and they had these animals in cages in stalls that were closed with no fans for air circulation. It was so hot in there, I couldn’t even breathe so I went to find the person in charge. Because it was an all-volunteer operation, nobody seemed to be in charge; I was just frantic so I started moving things around.”

In talking with several women who had been working the Cat Barn for several days, Carol suggested they move the cats to open cages, get some fans for air circulation, and leave the stall doors open so the cats would have a chance to breath. Otherwise, the cats would just roast. If that was the case, they would have been better off staying in New Orleans.

Later that day, a load of 83 more cats came in. All in distress. Dehydrated, welts, sick, scared, hurt, and hungry. Volunteers took the animals out of cages so the veterinarians and the vet techs could examine and hydrate the animals. Then a clean place with clean bedding and water had to be found for each of the animals.

The rest of the team were with the dogs in Barn Five. When the dogs came off the truck, a handler would take a dog and their paperwork to the intake table. The paperwork usually consisted of no more than a street location written on a sticky note, or if you were lucky, an address where the animal was picked up.

Each animal was given a number. Each had a photograph taken to put on Petfinder. The intake paperwork included where the dog was picked up, the results of the vet check, and his identification numbers.

When the animals came in, they were color coded green, orange, or red. The green code meant the animal was safe to join the general population of rescued animals and could be ready for transport to a rescue group. The orange code meant the animal had to go to the groomer before being placed with the general population. The red code meant the animal had to be quarantined until released to the general population by a veterinarian.

Once the intake was done, the dog was taken to the vet for shots. A microchip was inserted into each animal to assist in later identification, and hopefully reunification. The veterinarians would order medication when needed, and baths for some. The volunteers would take the dog and bathe him, or medicate him, or both.

Dogs were coming in with sores, bite wounds, and everything else. Many of the dogs were coming in with issues and injuries that occurred way before Katrina. There were cases of neglect and abuse. Some of the dogs came from homes where people gave them everything and anything. Others were abandoned animals that were left to survive on their own. Both types had often developed the “pack mentality” while trying to survive after Katrina.

When taking care of the dogs, each dog had to be taken for a walk once or twice a day. The walking area was at the far end of the fairgrounds, so you had to walk through rows and rows of cages with dogs in them. Many had thrown up, or defecated in their cage. Once you had returned your dog to its crate, you would stop and clean up the dogs and the cages that were a mess, and make sure there was fresh bedding in the cage. It would take as long as two hours to walk down one aisle if you stopped and cleaned up each dog with a problem. The Indiana team stopped to help each of these dogs.

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Tuesday was unorganized chaos in the Dog Barns. Everyone was trying to do everything, and it seemed little was getting done. By the end of the week, like the cat barn, the dog barns were more organized and working well under the conditions. There were people assigned to give baths, to walk, to clean cages, etc.

When the animals came in, they were in desperate need of water. Many had been on the trucks for up to 10 hours in the heat of New Orleans without water. If they weren’t dehydrated before they were picked up, they were now.

As each truck was unloaded with its cargo of animals, a dozen or more trucks were lined up waiting their turn to discharge their animal cargo. The intake station, the handlers, and the veterinarians and vet techs worked around the clock.

There were nearly 1,000 volunteers for the animals and hundreds of volunteers taking care of the volunteers. All in all there were well over a thousand volunteers frantically trying to rescue, and provide solace, to the dogs, cats, birds, horses, etc. left homeless by Katrina,

There were many incidents of fraud and theft of the animals. People were taking dogs and cats from expensive homes and then finding the owners and offering to sell the animals back to them. Basically, they were holding the pets for ransom.

One incident at Lamar-Dixon occurred when a couple of people took pictures of some of the apparently pure bred dogs. They gave the pictures to an elderly lady who then came and claimed them as hers. They took the dogs and sold them as rescued Katrina dogs.

As a result of the attempted fraud and thefts of the rescued animals, Lamar-Dixon had chain link fences with barbed wire tops surrounding the fairgrounds. Only one entrance was used for volunteers, who had to show their credentials to get in to work with the animals, and only one entrance for the trucks and vans bringing rescued animals to the shelter. Anyone taking pictures was questioned.

The first dog Gil took out of the truck had to be carried. She couldn’t, or wouldn’t walk. After carrying her from the intake station to the dog walk area, she suddenly came alive. She had found her buddy. She would walk with her mate, but wouldn’t walk unless he was there.

Gil says: “If you take a dog and starve it for 16 days and then you throw it in a cage and keep him there for 10 hours or more, he is going to be traumatized. Some of them refused to come out of their crates, some were aggressive, and some were so happy to be with people they would do anything.

“It took special people to work with and handle the dogs as they came off the truck. There was a rule that said if an animal bites someone, he is immediately put down. With this in mind, when an aggressive dog arrived, a handler who felt he could calm and work with the dog volunteered. As a result, there were very few bites, even though the trauma was great”.

Marie says: “It is easy to understand why a dog would show fear or aggression when being unloaded for intake. He probably was without food or water for two weeks. He was abandoned and homeless. Then they get thrown on a truck, have to stay on the truck for hours and hours, and then they get pulled back off the truck. They get a flashlight in their eye (vet check) and have a collar put on them. It is all very distressful. But, at the end of the day, after they have been bathed and fed and watered, most seem to calm down and realize they are in a better place. They are safe now.”

Tuesday was the day that let the team know how bad and how huge the problem really was. There were vans and cars and trucks that just kept coming with rescued animals. Often times the line stretched 20 to 30 vehicles waiting for their turn to unload. And, each vehicle was filled with dogs and cats that hadn’t been around humans for over two weeks.

Carol reflects: “At the end of Tuesday no one thought we were doing the right thing. There was too much bureaucracy and not enough getting animals genuine help.”

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On Wednesday morning, the team went into New Orleans. They went to a “renegade shelter” at the YMCA in the Garden district on St. Charles Street downtown. Carol said: “It was horrible. It made Lamar-Dixon look like a county fair. There were about three volunteers for 150 animals. There was no water, no supplies, and no shade. They spent the day moving dogs constantly trying to keep them out of the sun. There was no intake, no photographs. Nothing.”

People would catch the animals and bring them to the YMCA. None of the animals could be traced to where they came from, or to whom they belonged. Animals were being hidden in trucks, so they could be smuggled out. The Indiana team was given a list and asked to go get “these animals”.

Carol refused to get animals and take them to this shelter. She felt what they were doing was a violation of both the animal’s rights, and their owner’s rights. Instead, the team spent the day placing food and water on the street corners and wherever they could find animals.

By the time they had arrived in New Orleans, 16 days had passed since Katrina. During this time many of the surviving animals had “packed”. There would be groups of animals that had a protective leader that would not let anyone near the pack. The team simply made sure there was sufficient food and water available for them.

These dogs had not seen anything good from humans for over two weeks. It was hoped by placing the food and water their stress levels would go down and they would begin to accept humans again, and be calmer when rescue attempts were made.

When driving into New Orleans, you had to pass a checkpoint. Only those with the proper credentials were allowed to continue. Once the team got into town, about the only vehicles they saw were National Guard vehicles and Black Hawk Helicopters. While it was a little eerie to see the Guardsmen with automatic rifles roaming the streets, it was also comforting to know they were on your side and knew you were the good guys. Many of the guardsmen were taking the time to place food and water on the corners for animals also. They all seemed very appreciative for the work being done to support and rescue the homeless animals.

The first impression on the trip into New Orleans was devastating. Cheryl says: “The most difficult thing was coming across people’s personal articles laying in the yards and streets. That’s when it really hit home.”

Gil Thompson remembers: “I literally could not look around. You couldn’t even recognize the landmarks anymore. You would be driving down the road and the road would be blocked with huge trees that had snapped off, or were pulled from the ground. Sometimes to get two or three blocks, you would have to take several side streets, and then side streets of the side streets in order to find streets that weren’t blocked with downed trees or other debris such as telephone poles with wires hanging, cars, busses and boats that blocked roads.

“The damage was worse than could be imagined. The pictures on television didn’t begin to show the devastation to property, to people or to animals. Going into town was surreal. It was like a ghost town. A lot of the houses were intact, but there was no one there.”

There were some birds coming back. Many appeared to be sick. They looked lost and misplaced.

“It was hard to know whether the animals should be captured and detained, or whether they should just be given food and water and given time to heal. Was rescuing an animal adding to its trauma, or adding to its well-being?”

By Wednesday there were areas where the water had receded and people were allowed to go to their homes to see the damage, and to do what they needed to do. They could not re-inhabit their homes. They were still in an evacuation situation. Most couldn’t take their animals with them, but at least were able to open their homes and get air into them.

Many of their animals had escaped from the damaged homes and were roaming the streets. This is one of the reasons food and water were set out on the streets. It was hoped the animals would begin to trust humans again, and when their owners found them, would go to the owners. Many had already gone from loved pets to almost feral street animals in the 16 days since Katrina.

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The team distributed the donated food they had taken to Louisiana with them. They also got food and water from a truck at the YMCA shelter, and on Saturday from Lamar-Dixon.

“The dogs are ‘ packing’ up now. At one place we ran into a pack of dogs that had formed with a big Rottweiler that was obviously the boss. He was controlling them. There was everything from the Rottweiler to a puppy. We set some food out and tried to talk to them, but he would not let any of the others come near the food or us. After we left, we looked back, and the entire pack was near the food and water.”

“The Rottweiler was the guardian. He was protecting his family. The dogs had gone through something we could not imagine. They seemed to be saying, ‘just give me the food, and leave me alone.’ Even though several were wearing tags, they had lost faith in humans. No human had done anything good for them for 16 days. “

Wednesday after returning from New Orleans, the team found the cat barn greatly improved. Things were moving and shaking. Cages were changed out. There were fans being installed. Every day things got better. It was just a case that everyone there was totally exhausted. They were doing the best they could. They didn’t have time to realize how deplorable the conditions were.

When the team got back to the camp, they tried to relax before going to sleep. There were a lot of deep breaths and a lot of conversation. There was laughter to keep from crying. When emotions got tense someone would shout, “It’s down, I repeat, the Truck is down!” Everyone agrees that sleep deprivation can be a wonderful tool. “It allowed us to laugh to get over the rough spots.”

At the same time, Gil Thompson, who had lived in the New Orleans area for 22 years, couldn’t sleep. He needed to refocus. He sat outside the tent, lit a candle and sat trying to find a “happy spot.”