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After watching extensive news coverage of the devastation in New Orleans, I began to ask myself what I could do to help. Since I am retired with no real commitments, there was no reason I couldn't go down and lend a hand. Since the government is in no way involved with the rescue and care of animals and there seemed to be little politics and bureaucracy involved in helping the animals, this seemed the right focus for me.
After some investigation I volunteered through three organizations - the ASPCA, the Humane Society, and Pasado Safe Haven, an animal rescue organization from Bellevue, WA that had sent several teams to Louisiana. Pasado replied immediately and suggested I plan to travel to Gonzales, Louisiana. as soon as possible to help out at the Lamar-Dixon shelter that had been set up to temporarily care for rescued animals. So off I went. I decided to drive as I thought I may need my vehicle. There are no hotels available within a hundred miles and most volunteers have to sleep in their cars. I assembled sleeping bags, pillows, flashlights, and everything I thought I might need.
The large shelter has been set up at an equestrian center in Golzales, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It is in an area that did not experience the devastation we have seen in New Orleans. Most stores, gas stations, and restaurants are open for business. I had my first lucky break when a friend of mine secured a place for me to stay. My friend had a business associate in Baton Rouge and his mother lived in nearby Prarieville, just 10 miles from the shelter at Gonzales. Brenda and Dave graciously offered me their spare bedroom.
So far, over 6000 animals have been rescued from New Orleans. These include animals roaming the streets as well as ones that were left inside houses. People who used any kind of government service to evacuate were not allowed to bring their pets with them. Many evacuees thought they would be gone at most a couple of days and many left food and water in their houses for their pets. In any case, after a couple of weeks, many pets were in dire straits, either fending for themselves in the streets, or locked in houses with no food and water left. Many teams of rescuers are doing an amazing job getting to these animals and bringing them to the shelter.
As of this writing, the Lamar-Dixon shelter was housing over 2000 animals, including dogs, cats. horses, birds, hamsters, goats, and a variety of exotic pets. There are six large barns at the center, which have all be converted into housing for these animals. Conditions are far from ideal, but the animals are receiving medical attention when needed and volunteers are doing their best to keep them clean and fed. This is where I come in.
Within an hour of arriving at the shelter (after an 1100 mile drive) I was put right to work. I was assigned to work with dogs. For the next six days, here's what my life was like.
I arrived at the shelter at 7:00am and we would start the morning walking. We worked in teams of two. Mostly, I was partnered with Lori, a woman who had taken a week's vacation to drive down from Wisconsin to volunteer. Mornings were tough as about half the dogs had messed in their crates. I would take a dog out for a walk while Lori cleaned its kennel and got it fresh food and water. Then she would take the next dog. I would return with my dog, clean Lori's kennel and take the next dog. This went on for the next 6-7 hours. During that time, the two of us could care for about 50 dogs. It was extremely hard physically and emotionally. Each dog got about a 10 minute walk, long enough to stretch its leg and hopefully pee and poop (which of course had to be picked up). Our walk to and from the walking area was several hundred yards, mostly on concrete, resulting in aching legs and blisters by the end of the day. I'm not sure which was worse - the physical toll of the walking, or the smell of the plastic kennel liners as we removed them from the cages to take them back to the cleaning area. On top of that there was the constant din of dogs barking - all of them under stress and very unhappy. While there was some satisfaction when the last dog was walked, cleaned, and fed, there was also the realization that the first dog we had walked that morning had now been back in its cage for 7 hours!
After the morning shift, I would get lunch, then drive back to my house for a shower and nap. Other volunteers arrived mid-morning and had the job of trying to keep the dogs cool. Temperatures every afternoon climbed into the high 90's (35+c). Dozens of fans were set up to circulate air, ice was added to the water bowls, and dogs were sprayed with water in an attempt to keep them from overheating. Walking dogs was discourage between the hours of noon-6:00pm. Dogs that had arrived the previous day were taken for baths and dogs were checked to see if they needed medical attention.
After my nap, I would arrive back at the shelter at 6:00pm for the evening walks. This time, we would mostly just take the dogs out for a walk - only a small percentage of the kennels would need to be cleaned this time, meaning we could handle many more dogs in a shorter time. Again each dog would get a 10-12 minute walk. For us, this meant 10+ hours a day of walking. For the dogs it meant they got a mere 20-25 minutes each day out of their cage. Although we were moderately successful at keeping them clean and fed, there was simply no time for individual attention or to provide them with the love we so wanted to give them.
After just a few hours, newcomers turn into old pros. After the fatigue sets in, it's amazing to observe how we all reacted to stress. The simplest thing could trigger an emotional outburst. A new volunteer who wasn't fast enough, or didn't fill out the paperwork properly, or spent too much time with one dog ran the risk of being chastised by an "old timer" who had been there a day or two. My first emotional reaction came on my second day, after my first full morning of walking and cleaning. I was dead tired and was about to walk my last dog of the morning. He was a cute medium sized mixed breed and I just wanted to get it done. When I took him out, he was so happy and so full of life and energy, he just picked my spirits right up. I ended up giving him an extra long walk and a few hugs because he was such a nice dog. But then I got him back to his cage and had to put him in. It had been cleaned and furnished with bowls of fresh food and water. As soon as we got close, his whole demeanor changed. He DID NOT want to go back in that cage. My first attempt to get him in resulted in spilling all the food and water all over the crate. So it had to be cleaned again. Then I got a helper and we decided to put the dog in first and the food and water afterwards. So we shoved him in and then tried our best to open the door just wide enough to get the bowls in. There was still some spillage but we were moderately successful. But once we had the door locked with the dog safely inside, he looked at me and furrowed his little brow as if to say "Hey, I thought you were my FRIEND. How could you do this to me?". When I left he was pacing and barking and I was in tears. From then on, this dog became my special little buddy.
The next day, I began a routine of stopping at Starbucks for a latte, then arriving at the shelter early to take Buddy for a special walk while I drank my coffee. I succeeded in getting him moved to a larger cage, which only made him slightly happier. After my morning shift, I would talk Buddy out again and let him run in circles while I stood still holding his leash. We'd spend a few minutes cuddling before I had to return him to his cage. He was never very happy, but I did manage to give him extra walks every day and try to give him enough exercise to reduce some of his nervous energy.
Day after day, the routine was much the same. Dogs were shipped out every day to shelters around the country to make room for the new arrivals that came in every evening. Lamar-Dixon was at full capacity and the only way to accommodate new arrivals was to ship out current residents. Every day, owners would come through looking for their lost pets. But there were far more dogs than there were people looking, so the reunions were few and far between. As for the condition of the dogs, some were quite healthy as they had been rescued early, or been left with food and water by owners who expected to return in a day or two, or in some cases they were brought to the shelter by their owners who had to evacuate and had no other place to leave them. It was always nice to see the notation "owned animal" on the paperwork. But many dogs had been through obviously difficult times. Some were just thin, others were emaciated. Many had cuts, sores, or skin infections. Long haired dogs had matted hair that had to be cut and in some cases they needed to be completely shaved. Many were dehydrated and needed IV fluids. Every day we would talk to the rescue teams and hear the stories of where they had found dogs - a pair of cocker spaniels floating on a mattress, a terrier found in a house with a human body, dogs found on the streets eating the rotting bodies of other dogs. None of it was pretty, but we realized that no matter how inadequate we felt about our efforts to care for these dogs, they were at least better off than they had been.
What is to happen to all these animals? Unfortunately, many of them had no form of ID on them. Many were rescued from the street with no idea where they came from. Many people who are displaced may never return and even if they do, will have nowhere to keep a pet. so the future for many of these dogs is uncertain. They are now being placed in foster homes with people who agree to take care of them until they are either claimed or a permanent home is found. Petfinders has set up a website to assist in reuniting pets with their families.
After six days, physical and emotional exhaustion had begun to take their toll. Hurricane Rita was threatening and I began to think about the right time to leave. I had just finished the morning shift when I ran into a couple women from Ohio who had driven down to take 12 dogs back to their shelter. Only recognized shelters are given permission to take animals to put into foster care - believe it or not there are many people out there who would take dogs and do terrible things to them - sell them for research, use them for bait, things you don't even want to hear about! So they are trying their best to ensure that dogs taken from the facility are going to a reputable place. Well, these womens' large van had broken down in Mississippi and they had rented a mini-van and did not have room to take all the dogs they had permission to take. So I asked if they could facilitate me rescuing my "Buddy" and they readily agreed. They would put him on their list and recruit me as their driver. But I would have to leave within a matter of hours.
I had set out with no intention of bringing a dog home, but during some conversations on the phone with Bradley, he had encouraged me to try to rescue Buddy. We could not keep him ourselves as we already have two rambunctious male dogs, but I was pretty sure I could find him a good home. Buddy was beautiful and healthy, had no ID, and no address as to where he had been found. The collar he was wearing indicated he had probably been kept on a chain, so I had no qualms about trying to get him out. So I rushed back to my house to take a shower, pack up my things, and thank Brenda and Dave for their generosity. Then I went back to the shelter to help the women pack up the dogs they were taking and to get Buddy ready to go. He had to get a rabies vaccination, have a microchip implanted, and undergo a quick vet exam before he was cleared. But soon he was packed into my SUV and off we went. It was nearly 6:00pm by the time we left, so we drove for several hours and made it to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Like New Orleans, south Mississippi had sustained tremendous damage and there were no hotel rooms available. We spent the night in the car in a truck stop where we slept for a few hours. Buddy proved to be a great companion. The car seemed to have a calming effect on him, though he showed no signs of car sickness and was always eager to get back in after we had stopped for a walk. After a long drive, we arrived safely back in Oakton, Virginia at about 9:00pm.
Before meeting his new foster brothers, Buddy needed a good bath. So Mocha and Jordan were locked away while Buddy was scrubbed from head to toe to remove all traces of "that place". Then the introductions took place. Jordan was a little bent out of shape - he's a jealous guy - but he cheered up when we went outside to throw some tennis balls. Buddy seemed to take it all in stride, content to let Jordan be the boss, and happy taking turns with Mocha to try to hump each other! Over the next couple days, Buddy enjoyed some good long walks and some fine games of tug with Jordan. Thanks to Petfinders, there is a registry of people in the Virginia area who have volunteered to provide foster homes or permanent homes for dogs from Katrina. I found a wonderful woman who had an 11 month old boxer (about the same age as Buddy) who was happy to take him. I dropped him off and he and his new sister Shelby seemed to be instantly in love.
It is so hard to try to incorporate this experience in such a short space. I can only say it was a difficult and challenging experience but I am so glad I did it. It was a great feeling to know I helped these wonderful dogs, even in just a small way. And as you might expect, the people I met and had an opportunity to work with were wonderful, incredible people, most of whom had taken vacation time, traveled at their own expense, and lived in the most primitive conditions just because they wanted to help. To all of you - Lori, Sandy, Julie, Diane, Sue, Ann, Bonnie, Connie - it was a privilege to meet you and to work with you. Thanks for helping me to make it through the week! And a special thanks to Todd, Jeff, Brenda, and Dave for making me the most spoiled volunteer in Gonzales with a shower, air conditioning, and comfortable bed! I can't tell you how much that meant!