Culture Wars Over Animals
Philly Inquirer By Kathy Boccella ~
Sheila Combs lost nearly everything in Hurricane Katrina: her home, possessions, job and what really broke her heart, her 2-year-old mutt Rocket. Combs assumed the chow-Finnish Spitz mix had died after she, her mother and son evacuated from New Orleans.
So it seemed to be a miracle last month when a volunteer group seeking to reunite Katrina pets with their [guardians] discovered Rocket alive and flourishing in Doylestown. Except that the pooch isn't Rocket anymore – he's Rusty. And his new [guardians] have no intention of giving him back.
The resulting tug-of-war is among dozens of cases nationwide in which allegations of class bias have been raised by Katrina survivors attempting to reclaim beloved pets from the Good Samaritans who took them in. "It's almost entirely a movement of animals from poor blacks to middle-class whites," said Steven Wise, a Florida animal-rights lawyer involved in several custody battles.
People who first identified as foster caregivers now say some evacuees don't deserve animals back. In what has been called a cultural misconception, they cite neglect such as failure to spay/neuter animals, vaccinate against rabies, and use heartworm prevention as proof of unfit care.
"We're trying to do what's best for the dog," said Philip G. Kircher, lawyer for Lynn and Joseph Welsh, a psychotherapist and a doctor who took in Rocket. The Welshes declined interview and Kircher would not detail their concerns. "They think the dog would be better off with them because they're richer," said Kathleen P. Makowski, lawyer for Combs, a program manager at a nonprofit organization who lived in the Lakeview district of New Orleans.
Rocket's case is not unique. In January, a judge ruled that a Great Dane adopted by a Somerset County, NJ family should rejoin his Louisiana [guardian]. An 86-year-old Katrina victim has sued to reclaim his 25-lb white poodle, Bandit, from a Pittsburgh area woman. "Please help me get my dog back," said Malvin Cavalier, Bandit's [guardian] who now lives in Houston. "I don't know why this lady won't give him back. She's wrong, dead wrong."
Army Lt. Jay Johnson, in Iraq when the hurricane hit, has filed suit against Texas SPCA to retrieve his shih tzu, Missy, whom he left with relatives in New Orleans. And Linda Charles, 41, is suing to recover her German shepherd Precious from Humane Society of North Texas. "It's aggravating that people took not only our dog, but lots of people's dogs," said Charles, of New Orleans, who now resides in Baton Rouge, LA.
After the storm, many who fled left provisions for their pets and expected to return in a few days. When they didn't, the Humane Society of America and others collected the animals and shipped them to kennels around the country. Rescue workers left spray-painted notes on houses and posted information on Internet sites, such as Petfinder.com, to help [guardians] locate their animals. But by the time Katrina survivors were resettled and ready to search, many pets had found new homes.
Some groups set a Dec 31 deadline to retrieve animals. After that, they were eligible for permanent homes. But under Louisiana law, residents have three years to claim lost property, said Mimi Hunley of the Louisiana Attorney General's Office. And pets are property, Hunley said. [Kinship Circle does not recognize any animal as "property," but has preserved this text.
SPCA of Texas and Humane Society of North Texas declined to comment on the cases. Cavalier, a retired sheet-metal worker, said he left food and water for Bandit, his dog of 10 years, when he evacuated New Orleans Ninth Ward the day before Katrina hit. He never thought the levee would break, he said. "I was just praying to Almighty God that he would survive," he said.
Bandit passed through many hands before Pittsburgh, according to a 4/27 complaint filed in Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court against Lisa Fox, believed to have the dog. Cavalier's son tracked the poodle in October.
Stealth Rescue, a Canadian animal group, negotiated with Voices for Animals, which had sheltered Bandit. Stealth even arranged to fly him home. According to the complaint, someone with Voices suggested that Cavalier "abandoned" the dog and was an "undeserving [guardian]." Now Fox and Bandit cannot be located. "Isn't that cruel?" said Sandra Bauer of Stealth Rescue. "Malvin even built a doghouse with Bandit's name in brass letters."
Candice Zawoiski of Voices denies the group ever had custody of Bandit. But she recognized that groups struggle over animals suspected of "serious long-term neglect" pre-Katrina. Some, such as Rose Reith also of Doylestown, who took in 9-year-old Mojo, are happy to send foster dogs home. Reith hunted the Internet for Mojo's [guardian] and plans to drive the Benji look-alike to New Orleans for a reunion with Kimberly McNeil. "She told her youngest son, whose birthday is a few weeks before, he'll get a special present," said Reith, a crossing guard with a dog and four cats.
For McNeil and her family, Mojo's return is bittersweet. "I love my dog and I'm happy to have him back, but right now I have no place to live," said McNeil, a mother of three who is temporarily living in Houston.
Many see attempts to deny Katrina victims their animals as further proof that New Orleans poor have suffered disproportionately since the hurricane. Standards of care differ by region, said Becky Adcock of the Louisiana State University veterinary school.
What is acceptable in the rural South may not be in the urban Northeast. Some out-of-state volunteers were horrified that many dogs in the area had fleas, but poor families can't afford expensive treatments, she said. And not being spayed or neutered isn't a sign of abuse, Adcock said. What's most important for Katrina animals is "to be with their pack, their family who loves them."
Negligence was not an issue with Rocket, a neutered dog with a fenced yard who wore a rabies-vaccination tag, said Makowski, Sheila Combs' lawyer. Rocket was sent to Molly's Country Kennels in Lansdale, then to Holiday House Pet Resort in Doylestown, said Anita Wolleson, who is with Stealth Volunteers, a group that scours the Internet to unite [guardians] and pets.
After learning Rocket was alive, Combs contacted Lynn Welsh. At some point, Wolleson said, "Lynn decides she's not giving the dog back." Now lawyers say the case may go to trial. Combs has not yet told her son she found Rocket.
Kircher, Welsh's lawyer, called his client a "decent, warm" person who also has a rescued Greyhound. "They're not trying to steal anybody's dog. They're doing what they think is appropriate," he said. Makowski wonders what that really means. It's "the same rationale I hear all the time: 'The dog is better off with us,'" she said. "If this was a child, would a wealthy family get him/her instead of biological parents?"
Am I A Snob, Racist, Or Animal Defender?
By Brenda Shoss, Kinship Circle ~
I am not an "urban Northeast" liberal snot. I live in St. Louis, MO – an old brick city rooted in jazz/blues similar to New Orleans. St. Louis even has its own Mardi Gras. Rural Missouri is on par with the rural South, awash in Tea-Party mentality with substandard animal welfare and unyielding mistrust of "them PETA people."
So while I am no East/West Coast crusader, a label many Katrina articles passively associate with racism, I recognize animal cruelty when I see it – anywhere.
To imply that we out-staters fail to grasp acceptable standards of animal care in the rural South is (apologies to hogs everywhere) hogwash
. In fact, it's analogous to claims that "liberals" don't understand why the rural South still flies Confederacy flags and glorifies historic proponents of slavery.
Racism is racism. And animal cruelty is animal cruelty. Regardless of antiquated laws that define animals as "property," they are sentient beings – each with his or her own personality, will, desires and needs.
Do you know an individual dog, cat, horse or hen? Then you know what I mean.
With that said, each Katrina custody case differs from the next. No one can make blanket assumptions about involved parties. Some fled New Orleans at gunpoint, hand-cuffed, or under physical threat if they tried to bring their animals with them.
One man in Chalmette, Louisiana told me the worst nightmare imaginable. He referred to his dog Baby Girl as, "My child. Baby Girl is my life." When floodwaters rose around the man and Baby Girl, an officer ordered evacuation at gunpoint. He did not aim at the man.
The officer held his gun to Baby Girl's head
Those of us who bypass the simile "like" — because our animals aren't "like our children," they are
our children — know the horror this man felt.
So the man, who'd lived with Baby Girl on the second floor of his business warehouse after losing his St. Bernard Parish home, rigged enough food/water to last Baby Girl two weeks. After several days gone, he snuck back into New Orleans for Baby Girl. He has lived with her in the warehouse ever since.
But what if he'd been unable to get back? What if out-state rescuers had saved Baby Girl and sent her into a national foster/adoption system unprepared for
Katrina's chaos? What if Baby Girl had become "lost in the system," a term used to describe a missing Katrina animal's botched paperwork.
Most animals found long after the storm were located by Stealth Volunteers, Remote Reunion Campaign, Katrina Animal Reunion Team, No Animal Left Behind, and more volunteer coalitions. Katrina evacuees who want them back are subject to a nation of uneven laws on animal "ownership." The time frame for reclaiming "lost pets" varies from region to region.
Louisiana issued a Katrina "property rights" rule that gave evacuees three years to retrieve lost animals. But as some plaintiffs learned, Louisiana law may not hold-up in an out-state courtroom.
Some scenarios seem clearcut: If the Chalmette man had lost Baby Girl to well-meaning adopters, he'd have a strong case for recovery. Katrina families violently bullied into stranding their animals should get them back. Animals boarded at disaster shelters – later deemed "lost in the system" – should go back to guardians if found. Animals "rescued" from yards and porches, (with guardians back) ought to go home.
Plus a million more horrific scenes: The freaked out kitty who escaped her guardian's arms as they awaited a rescue ferry (this guardian's carriers were destroyed in floods). The elderly who were denied medical aid unless they abandoned their animals.
Even the countless who "thought they'd be right back" and stupidly left beloved animals behind with food/water? I sincerely hope they and the nation learned a never-again lesson. Still, if their animals are located it's time for those animals to go home.
Infinite circumstances differentiate one custody battle from another. If substantiated evidence, including veterinarian testimonial, shows longstanding pre-Katrina cruelty/neglect, an animal is better off with his/her adoptive family. It doesn't matter if adopters are from New York, California, or Missouri like me. In my mind, it's about the animal who endured a treacherous ordeal. What is best for him or her?
Am I racist? Part of Katrina culture wars?
Nah. I am simply this:
A defender of nonhuman animals.