Dozens of volunteers in Mississippi to work to save, shelter animals

Owner of Howard County horse rescue is among those helping out

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLLINS, Miss. - When Allan Schwartz pulled up in his truck at the Collins Exotic Animal Orphanage yesterday, towing a horse trailer with a 300-gallon water tank, owner Betty White exclaimed, "That was like God came down."

Huge tigers sprawled listlessly in what little shade was left after Hurricane Katrina's howling winds stripped the trees. Bobcats, panthers and wolves jogged around their wire enclosures in the once-tidy roadside zoo, an attraction in this hamlet of 3,000 that felt the storm's fury even though it was 80 miles inland.

Exotic birds, poisonous snakes in aquariums, and several lizards and turtles also survived the hurricane, which snapped trees, blew away roadsides and scattered debris for miles around but largely spared the animal orphanage. The only significant damage was to the iguana's outdoor cage. It had scampered outside in the midst of the storm, forcing White, 55, to dash after it and bring it inside her nearby home.

But there was still no electricity to run the water pumps or refrigerate the meat the animals craved, which had gone rancid. And the power could be out for weeks.

The animals were starting to get thirsty and hungry.

While White viewed Schwartz's appearance as divine intervention, it was hardly the most strenuous foray in his 15-year career specializing in swift-water rescue. That can involve using slings to hoist terrified large animals - usually horses - to safety from flooded streams.

The owner of Days End Horse Rescue in Lisbon, in western Howard County, Schwartz had been growing a bit restless in recent days.

He had been sitting around without much to do except chain smoke while camped for several days at the fairgrounds with other volunteer animal rescue workers in the state capital - Jackson, 60 miles to the northeast. Mississippi emergency management officials deemed conditions closer to the ravaged Gulf Coast too dangerous for the volunteers to go into action until an "assessment team" gave its approval.

White viewed him as a savior as he pumped water into her tubs, buckets and garbage cans as the cougar paced nervously in her chain-link enclosure nearby. Even more helpful, perhaps, was the gasoline he lugged in 5-gallon plastic containers. White will use it to fuel the small generator that operates the oxygen pump her husband, Gus, who has emphysema, depends on.

While the water was welcome, White realized that it "is not going to last long," not with so many hungry beasts.

Supplying animals with food and water is an important job for the animal welfare groups that respond to disasters, but animal workers say it is a fraction of what they are capable of doing.

By yesterday, there were dozens of trained volunteers and trailers full of equipment from more than a dozen animal rescue organizations at the fairground, waiting for clearance to move into more devastated areas.

Officials want to minimize the number of people in heavily affected areas, and logistics for a disaster of this size are extremely complicated, said Laura Bevan, the Southeast regional director of the Humane Society of the United States.

Animals that are removed from harm's way need food, a place to live, veterinary care and other services that have to be coordinated, she said. Plus a severe gasoline shortage makes it difficult to send teams out with confidence that they can return.

So far, the state has asked the animal organizations to survey the needs around Jackson, Bevan said. But only a few needs were found. Yesterday, a small team was allowed to move into Jackson County to the west to do an assessment.

It has been a difficult wait for the volunteers who greeted those they knew from previous disasters and helped out in the on-site animal shelter to keep busy. Reports circulated among the volunteers of thousands of dead animals in areas to the south, and people said in hushed voices that as time went by, fewer and fewer animals would be found alive. It is a situation that Schwartz said he understands but finds frustrating.

If the volunteers were allowed to go where people are in need, they could render assistance to them, too. Being animal experts "doesn't mean we're going to drive by the people, " Schwartz said. Certainly, Gus White welcomed the fuel he brought for his oxygen pump.

Schwartz said the workers, most of whom have hundreds of hours of training, can work with human relief efforts and take care of any animal problems at the same time.

In particular, they can remove pets and livestock from the area before they become dangerous, either by becoming frightened and aggressive or by dying and creating a health hazard.

"Fifty thousand dead animals floating in the water is not going to be a human problem?" he asked.

In the meantime, the animal workers were, for the most part, reduced to helping the animals that arrived at the Mississippi fairground with their owners, who were seeking refuge at a Red Cross shelter there.

Many people will not leave their homes without their animals, said Lauren Bond, the coordinator of disaster services for the Humane Society of the United States. But, she said, "many shelters just aren't set up" to accommodate pets.

In Jackson, the shelter housed about 90 dogs, a dozen cats, several birds and three pet pigs.

More calls for help will come in, Bevan said. And more teams will move out. But, she said, it is difficult to work in the aftermath of a hurricane as large as Katrina.

"It's bigger than all four Florida hurricanes put together," she said.

Today, some workers may get to venture as far south as Gulfport, directly on the coast, but only to pick up some cats and dogs.

As for other animals that suffered in the storm, Diane Webber, regional director of the Midwest and Central States offices of the Humane Society, said, "It may be too late for some. It may be just in time for others."

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