Pets rescued from flood await owners

September 10, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GONZALES, La. - Nancy Deleo's eyes were raised to heaven, but she wasn't praying. She was keeping tabs on the escaped cockatoo in the rafters of Barn One.

"If that's what they want me to do, then hell, I'll do it," said Deleo, who was among more than 100 people volunteering this week at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, an equestrian show facility in the suburbs that has become the central shelter for animals rescued from flooded New Orleans.

Yesterday morning, Deleo had literally been staring at the ceiling for two hours but - even though it's unclear what she would do if the bird actually made a break for it - she didn't consider this a waste of time.

"I keep thinking about the owners," she said. "Every time somebody comes through here looking for a bird, I say, `Don't forget about the one up there.'"

Her vigilance was typical. Particularly compared with the botched human rescue effort that followed Hurricane Katrina, the pet evacuation - likely the largest in the nation's history - is remarkably well-orchestrated.

At the shelter, jointly run and funded by the country's major animal welfare groups, freshly washed dogs get little taco-shaped treats with their meals, and no cockatoo goes untended.

Yet the pet rescuers' goal is ultimately the well-being of humans, said Dave Pauli, an animal incident commander with Louisiana's Animal Response Team, who is helping to run the shelter.

"For many people, pets are all they have left," he said.

He had to speak loudly to be heard over a cacophony of yips, whinnies and whines coming from hundreds of horse stalls. About 1,300 unclaimed animals are staying at the center and, as the rescue effort accelerates, animals will continue to stream in at the rate of about 500 a day.

This is disaster's menagerie: miniature horses, spotted frogs, hamsters, gray parrots and pot-bellied pigs, rescued from backyards and rooftops and floating doors.

There are lots of ponies and scores of house cats, although the dogs are the true faces and voices of this place. Separated from their masters, they howl and whimper. One despairing golden retriever lay silent in his cage, watching the world with huge brown eyes.

But they were no bigger or browner or sadder than the eyes of 11-year-old Christian Calandra.

This is a place for lost people, too.

Her mother's trailer in St. Bernard Parish is washed away; Christian knows her rabbits drowned. But as her family fled the flood, at the last minute she opened the cage of Jaksi, her shar-pei puppy.

"I'm here to look for my dog," she said.

Christian stood on tiptoe to peer into stall after stall of individually caged dogs. A German shepherd roared at her. A rat terrier sniffed her hand. But none of the panting faces looked familiar.

"She was smaller than these ones," Christian said. "She had a broken tail."

Rescuers estimate that 5,000 to 10,000 animals were left in New Orleans after the levees broke, and specialty teams have been retrieving them by land and water, guided by tips from owners, National Guardsmen and random sightings.

Reuniting the surviving pets with their owners is a huge task, but officials here say it is the ultimate goal of every animal rescue, and pains are taken from the first point of contact to keep track of pets' origins so that evacuees can claim them tomorrow or years from now.

The welfare groups - which include the Humane Society, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and local and regional organizations - are developing computer databases of the animals' addresses and implanting computer chips with other known information beneath their skin, even the hamsters'.

They are downloading digital pictures of the animals at www.petfinder.com so that people who fled out of state can search for their pets.

Owners can also tour the shelter, which is expected to remain open for several months. But within a week, the facility will likely reach its estimated capacity of 3,000 animals.

By tomorrow, about 450 animals will have been moved to other shelters across the country, and many more will follow. Welfare groups will pay for the continued transportation and maintenance of these animals, but they will eventually find new homes.

Adoptive families will take in the pets with the understanding that the animals can be repossessed if original owners materialize.

As pitiful as they look, the animals in the shelter are the lucky ones: they are scrubbed and vaccinated upon arrival, and - besides some cases of dehydration and diarrhea - most of them are in good physical shape.

That will change over the next few days, as animals start to die in larger numbers, Pauli said. The streets of New Orleans are still teeming with terrified, starving pets.

A tiny lap dog flees the sound of a military convoy, running so fast that its ears fly backward. A German shepherd gulps filthy water and paces the railroad tracks.

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