HSUS Teams Fight Fire and Flood to Rescue Pets in New Orleans

Dogs wait for their owners to return on top of a flooded car in New Orleans Monday.
Dogs wait for their owners to return on top of a flooded car in New Orleans Monday.
An animal rescue worker slips a leash on a dog found wandering in New Orleans, Louisiana, Wednesday.
An animal rescue worker slips a leash on a dog found wandering in New Orleans, Louisiana, Wednesday.
A dog peers through burglar bars in a flooded house in New Orleans' Ninth Ward.
A dog peers through burglar bars in a flooded house in New Orleans' Ninth Ward.

The young man in dreadlocks swore that he had checked on the cat earlier this morning; and that she was still roaming apartment No. 6 at 1320 St. Andrew, just a few blocks north from where the Mississippi River makes its famous crescent around this mostly deserted city.

The elderly woman who lives at No. 6 evacuated before Katrina, the man said, probably about 10 days ago. He had been keeping a periodic eye on the black-and-white cat ever since. But as members of The HSUS Disaster Animal Response Team, under the direction of the Louisiana SPCA, entered the third-floor apartment, they could find no animal. Nor could they find any tell-tale signs of the cat: no food or water bowls, no litter box, no obvious odor of feces or urine.

The man was as perplexed as the DART members, although he did mention the elderly woman has Alzheimer's and may have forgotten to leave provisions.

Then suddenly Bruce Earnest, a DART member from Waterloo, Iowa, shouted out, "I found her!" The rest of the team swiftly gathered in the room. HSUS volunteer Jane Garrison popped the top on a can of cat food and placed it near the gold cushion chair under which the animal had crawled. The feline was not tempted by the bribe.

Finally, with Earnest tipping the chair slightly toward him, Garrison, lying on her side with her arms snaking under the skirt of the small piece of furniture, grabbed the cat and secured the animal in a carrier.

"That's a big kitty," Garrison said after she closed the wire carrier door on the 25-pound cat.

The young man in dreadlocks, fearing that the National Guard would order him and the last remaining citizens of this severely crippled city to evacuate, was clearly relieved to learn his neighbor's cat was in safe hands and that he could focus on other problems. But to this DART team, the rescue was just one of 28 that they made over a hot, humid, sweaty, and exhausting afternoon in the Big Easy that was anything but.

Before the team members returned to their base of operations in Gonzales, about an hour's drive north of New Orleans, they dropped a number of animals off at the Jefferson Feed, Pet, and Garden Center, just outside the Crescent City's borders. There, the animals would be cleaned, checked for injury or illness, cataloged, and then sent to one of a number of locations, depending on their needs and the owner's wishes to keep the pet or put them up for adoption.

After the chaos of New Orleans, the methodical nature of this process to hopefully return animal to owner was a welcome reminder that order, one day down the line, would indeed be restored to the ravaged city and its inhabitants.

An Animal Rescuer's Task

The rescue teams here in Louisiana are divided into two groups: the water-based teams and the land-based teams. Despite the media reports that New Orleans remains largely under water, the city has many pockets that are dry, with buildings accessible by car and foot. Given the limited number of boats available to the trained animal teams from around the country, from Oregon to New Jersey, the majority of rescue operations occur on land.

But whether land- or water-based, the rescue teams have a monumental task ahead of them. Citizens from all over southern Louisiana have called in requests to rescue animals, their own pets and those of neighbors and loved ones. There is a stack of Xeroxed papers more than an inch thick listing addresses—places in Uptown, Downtown, Mid City, Metarie, or hundreds of other locations—where animals wait for someone to take them out of harm's way. The people who live at each of these addresses have authorized rescue teams to enter their homes and rescue animals.

The teams have ensure they have all the gas, equipment, food, and water they need before they leave for New Orleans, because the city has nothing. Literally. There is no electricity, no gas, no food, no water, no convenience store in which to pop in and relieve yourself.

The land-based teams must then travel in a convoy to make the 50-mile trip to New Orleans, led by a clearly-marked animal control vehicle with flashing police lights. Each vehicle in the convoy must be clearly marked and have its emergency lights flashing. Only then will the convoy be allowed to take the emergency lane of traffic established by the National Guard on Interstate 10 into New Orleans. All other traffic is routed off the debris-covered roadway about 40 miles outside the city.

Once inside the city, the teams are stopped at several checkpoints to make sure no looters or gangs can enter New Orleans and strip its vulnerable buildings of their contents. The teams then convene at a large gathering area, like a parking lot, to divide into sub-teams. Each team receives a neighborhood assignment and a list of addresses where animals are trapped.

The day rarely goes as planned.

Coming Through Fire: A Day of Rescues

One of our three land-based teams deployed for the day started its rescue work a block from the parking lot staging area, at an upstairs apartment at 617 Napoleon. The teams found a back door unlocked and seven cats camping out in various rooms in the dwelling, which reeked of urine, feces, trash, and cat food. With the litter box overflowing, the cats were forced to relieve themselves wherever they could, including on mattresses.

Several cats cowered in the bathroom; two hid under a bed. All were safely rescued and put on the air-conditioned animal control truck, a clear improvement for the animals who had been living in the fetid, scorching apartment.

No sooner had team members finished the first house then an emergency rescue forced them to deviate from their planned schedule. A block away from the Napoleon address, firefighters battling a multi-house blaze asked the team to rescue a pair of dogs under a smoking home that threatened to become a charred skeleton of brick and foundation, like the dwellings next to it. A police officer on the scene said the fire was a case of arson.

As helicopters flew over the scene, perfectly timing the drop of large bags of water on the blaze, team members ran through a choking haze of smoke and down a street covered with smoldering bricks, a toppled power line with its transformer fully ablaze, and large pools of standing water. Humane Officer Robert Boyle, a 23-year veteran from Clifton, New Jersey, found one dog, a pit bull mix, trapped under the house. The animal was tethered and had somehow tightly wrapped himself around PVC piping under the house.

Boyle determined the dog posed no threat; while attempting to cut the animal loose, the dog jumped on the officer, licking his face. After HSUS volunteer Linda Nealon finally slipped a leash around the dog's neck, Boyle managed to cut the dog from his tether, and Nealon walked the grateful pooch through the smoke and fire, back to the cool comfort of the animal control truck.

Meanwhile, as the smoke gradually thickened, the other free-roaming dog under the house would not allow anyone to approach him, no matter how much team members cooed at him. He was scared and nervous and not about to trust a stranger. As the minutes passed and the smoke intensified, Jennifer Ranero, the humane officer from the Louisiana SPCA in charge of this team, had to make an agonizing decision: try to rescue the dog and put her team at considerable risk, or move on to other addresses. She reluctantly chose the latter, one of the many tortuous decisions a rescuer may make during the course of a day.

And so it went during the next six hours: Block after block, teams entered homes and apartments—often forced to break into them—and searched for frightened and confused animals. After each rescue, the teams would often walk back to their vehicles to find residents—many dirty, tired or teary—who wanted to divert the team's attention to another animal. To a stray dog roaming the neighborhood. To a friend's pet trapped in a locked apartment. To a sick dog who needed medical attention.

Even authorities stopped to ask for an animal rescue. Members of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms stopped team members to see if rescuers could save animals still trapped in the flooded areas of town. U.S. Marshals, firefighters, and the National Guard did the same. Their concerns clearly reached beyond the human realm, even if their orders didn't.

At the end of the day, if the rescuers felt any exhaustion or frustration, they didn't let it show. They quietly ate their box dinners while sitting on plastic chairs or on truck tailgates at Jefferson Feed, sometimes answering questions from the media and other times returning to attend to the animals they had just rescued. If they needed any independent verification of the importance of their work, they only had to turn their attention to the inside of Jefferson Feed.

There, a Metarie family was relinquishing its three dogs, Laddy, Gypsy, and Pearl. The father explained that they were headed to a hotel in Opelousas which did not accept dogs, and he didn't know when they would return. Once they did, though, the family planned to reclaim Gypsy, a tri-colored Collie with an elegant disposition. The loss, even if temporary in Gypsy's case, was not sitting well with the man's 11-year-old daughter Emily. As the father tried to round the family up to leave, the girl sat there next to the kennels where her dogs were placed. Tears rolled down her puffy, red cheeks. She refused to move from her spot beside the kennel, beside her pet.

To anyone who could bear to watch, Emily's pain was a reminder that humans and animals share a bond that no storm can permanently break. It was a reminder that the animals still in need of rescuing have someone desperately waiting to hold them again.

The Humane Society of the United States is on the ground in the most devastated areas of the Gulf Coast. The animals are counting on us...and we are counting on you. To donate click here.