The First Week

Trip Start Sep 22, 2005
Trip End Mar 03, 2006

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Flag of United States  , Louisiana
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

I've been here a week, but it feels like half a lifetime. I've never worked so hard, stressed out so much, or felt so rewarded by my efforts.

Lamar-Dixon Exposition Center, where I'm based, has been temporarily converted into a massive animal shelter for victims of Katrina. Most of the major animal rescue groups are working out of here. Volunteers do a million things, and we're free to decide where to work. I spent my first day in the shelter area, walking, feeding, and loving the dogs. Aside from a few details, like the inordinate number of pitt bulls, it wasn't too different from other shelters in which I've volunteered. Wonderful dogs, sad stories, hopefully bright futures.

But I've never seen anything like the Search and Rescue operations. Joining the S&R teams required no special training, just a willingness to get up before dawn and drive through a devastated city until dusk. On Day two, I found a partner with a car and started searching.

It's hard to give a general impression of New Orleans, because I've been hyperfocused on finding animals. Sometimes I have to make myself stop and really look around. When I do, it's heartbreaking. Because we were authorized to break into specific homes to rescue animals, we've been able to see the devastation on the family level. While some of the homes are virtually untouched, most are coated with a thick slime of mud and mold both inside and out. Furniture is upended and scattered, and windows, walls, and roofs are broken or gone. I've found to-do lists on counters, reminders that people believed their normal lives would go on. I found an evening gown laid out across a chair, waiting for a big event that never happened. In many homes, nothing is salvageable. In the areas with the worst flooding the mold creeps up to the ceiling, leaving one to wonder who or what was in the house when the water closed the gap between the floor and the ceiling.

Walking down the streets of the abandoned neighborhoods is bizarre. Where did they all go? Who will come back? Who is still left inside? The heart stops to see signs like the one I saw spray painted on the outside of a house: "20 people inside. 10 children. Send food."

Amidst all this human suffering and loss, of course, is the tragedy of the animals left behind. Still, still, animals are coming out of locked homes, emaciated but, unbelievably, still hopeful. Many, many more are perishing, unable to alert us to their presence. I've reached a few of these animals too late. I won't write much about that, as I can't continue to work here if I think about it. I will just say this: Please, please take your pets with you in an emergency. Even if you think it will only be a few days. If you can't, find someone who can. They count on us to protect them.

On to cheerier news. In five days of Search and Rescue, I and my partner have brought in 14 animals, and we've fed and watered many more. Those of you who have donated to my trip have helped pay for fuel for 12- to 16-hour shifts in the city. You have helped save these five cats, five dogs, two ferrets and two fish (yes, we even got the fish!). It matters to them. On October 1 alone, Humane Society teams pulled out around 130 animals, and we're still going.

My favorite personal story so far is of a beat-up, scarred-up pitt bull that Leo and I spotted in the wreckage of an auto body shop. He was lying under a pick-up truck, a junkyard dog if ever I saw one. We were nervous about him--he looked intimidating--but his wounds looked worrisome, so we gave it a try. We spent an hour or so coaxing him out, then we carefully used a pole to capture and crate him. I love this story because Leroy, who we think was used as bait to train fighting pitts, turned out to be a total sweetheart. He just wants to be as close to us as he can. When I sat with him in the intake area, surrounded by barking dogs and chaos, he snuggled up against me and fell asleep. But he's not exactly handsome. He's literally covered with scars and wounds. The Humane Society has rescued so many pitts, and it's so hard to find homes for them that we weren't sure our little guy stood a chance. Leo, my superstar partner, stepped up to the plate: Yesterday Leroy hopped onto a new dog bed, got comfortable, and rode 18 hours to Arizona. Apparently he's a natural in the car. Leo will foster him until he finds a loving home--and I know he will.

We also rescued a pitt mix puppy to whom we've given the unfortunate name "Molly Ringworm." Molly was locked inside a High School auditorium, and when she heard us walk in she yipped and came skidding around the corner. She was so grateful to be found and to have human contact. Other than the ringworm, which is easily treatable, she's in good shape and I'm sure she'll find a wonderful home if her owners do not track her down.

Fourteen animals, fourteen stories just like that. And that's just my team. Humane Society teams have rescued thousands of animals since Katrina. These brave survivors are being shipped to shelters all over the country, and they deserve a chance at a new life. They've fought so hard for it. Please consider walking through your local shelter to see if your next best friend is there. Even if it's not a Katrina victim, you'll have opened up a spot for one and given hope to a homeless animal. That's the next step in the rescue process: Getting all the little ones whose families don't return resettled into caring homes.
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