A Kinship Circle team returned to New Orleans to aid animals 389x930 Brenda Shoss cuddles a happily rescued dog at ARNO 300x300

Buddy And Baby Girl

By Brenda Shoss  ~  A Kinship Circle team returned to New Orleans to aid animals. Along with roaming cats and dogs, we found many Katrina stories along our route.

A wheat-colored dog runs toward our vehicle at 1400 Montegut and N. Villere Street. A curious Shepherd mix follows. Behind them, a man in rumpled shirt and jeans approaches. He wants to talk. It's been nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina leveled his Chalmette, Louisiana home.

He lives inside his commercial warehouse in the Upper Ninth Ward. When Louisiana State Police tried to evacuate him after Katrina, the man refused to desert Buddy and Baby Girl.

"I have no wife, no children," he explains. "These dogs are my family."

An officer aimed his gun at Baby Girl, forcing the man to leave or watch his dog die. He quickly confined both dogs to an upper level, with self-dispensing food and water for two weeks. Floodwaters rose 8 feet under the dogs.

But the man managed to sneak back into the city to retrieve them. "We still live in this 'temporary' warehouse apartment," he confides. "The insurance company I had for 18 years didn't come through for us."

As Katrina's two-year anniversary nears, Gulf Coast recovery progresses unhurriedly. Renewal of infrastructure, levees and wetlands, clean-up and rebuilding…all languish in red tape.

In 9th Ward west, where Katrina seems frozen in empty doorsteps and board-covered windows, occasional new homes rise from rubble. Two black cats dart past dilapidated buildings and overgrown lawns.

Nearby, Mary Michelle emerges from her tiny shotgun style home to offer us cold Cokes. At age 90, she resettled in New Orleans after an eight-month evacuation. Her first cat died in Katrina's floodwaters. She now cares for a feisty calico who bolts from a footstool to greet me.

Mary apologizes for the mold-infested carpet she cannot afford to replace. Where is the aid, she wonders, to replace her waterlogged belongings? "At my age, honey, Louisiana is my last home," she says. "Thank you for coming all the way here to help our animals."

Stuck Between Hope And Despair

Any story about companion animals reflects the people who loved or abandoned them. Hurricane Katrina stranded an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 domesticated animals in New Orleans alone. These numbers don't account for other parishes or Mississippi. By some guesstimates, 600,000 or more pets struggled alone in Katrina's aftermath.

Before Katrina, Louisiana's spay/neuter rates were among the worst nationwide. The storm scattered unaltered pets and ferals over a chaotic landscape with ample opportunity to breed.

New Orleans dwindled from a pre-hurricane count of 484,674 (2000 U.S. census) to roughly 200,000 to 275,000 residents. Strays normally congregate near restaurants and trashcans. But with the population reduced by half, animals no longer have reliable food sources.

Human victims face overwhelming odds too. By early March 2007, Governor Kathleen Blanco's federally subsidized Road Home program had supplied 630 rebuilding grants, even though 107,000 qualified homeowners applied. While Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers, state and municipal governments debate overdue legislation and funding, displaced residents wait for Small Business Administration loans, insurance claims and other fiscal support.

According to an assessment from the nonprofit Institute for Southern Studies, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are "still in crisis," with some 110,000 families in interim government trailers or reliant upon FEMA rental aid. Several cut-offs are postponed to August 2007, yet "tens of thousands have already been cut from the rolls," notes the Durham, N.C. based organization.

Still, a sense of hope pervades. Signs on gutted homes declare, "We will rebuild." Local contractors advertise, "With you after the storm and now." TV programs air updates from parish administrations.

Welcome Trespassers

Kinship Circle's animal aid team includes Marnie Reeder and Liz White of Austin, TX, Barb Dunsmore from San Diego, and Grady Ballard with Brenda Shoss from St. Louis, MO. We set-up about 220 food/water stations for cats and dogs left to scavenge in sparsely populated areas.

Our task coincides with Mardi Gras, with some 800,000 tourists in the French Quarter and Garden District. Jazz, blues and funk spill from doorways. Neon skies glow over crowds on Canal, St. Charles, Poydras and Magazine.

But the city has jagged edges. Across the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, Katrina's surge ruptured the Industrial Canal levee. Here, the Lower Ninth Ward is a bulldozed wasteland. A few homes teeter at cartoon-like angles where the storm uprooted and tossed them.

As of 2/22/07, only two Lower Ninth Ward residents had inhabited new homes sponsored by ACORN Housing, a community advocacy group. "The view from the back porch for Josephine Butler, who lost the house her husband and brother built decades ago, is one of mudholes, a debris pile, crumpled or vacant buildings and tangles of vines," writes Becky Bohrer for the AP in Katrina-ravaged area gets first new homes.
I weep for the child and dog who will never revisit this room 293x315

Tears For A Child And Dog

Katrina gusts hit Plaquemines Parish – a long peninsula between the Mississippi River east bank and Gulf of Mexico to the southeast – at more than 150 mph. Levees crumbled in a Category 5 storm surge. Water gushed in at 20 feet or higher.

I am instantly aware of the absence of sound.

At a house off Buras Hwy. 1, muddy CDs and pompoms litter a teen's room. Mascara, acne cream and toothpaste linger in the cupboard of another skeletal home in Pointe Celeste.

Inside a white house where cats find shelter, I stumble upon a dead possum coiled around tutus, Barbie-doll purses, and a pink collar. A sky-blue shirt blinks in petrified ruins. I imagine long-ago noise. I see small hands cuddle a happy dog.

I stand without words, a trespasser eavesdropping on other lives. I weep for the child and dog who will never revisit this room.
Searching for animals under an uprooted home, setting food trays at a destroyed bank where animals hide 900x475

Cats, Dogs And Spray-Paint

Most buildings on our route bear the spray-painted "X" rescuers used to communicate. Messages dated 2005 read "SPCA, 2 Dogs, 9-13" and "1 cat, F/W, 10-23." DOA means someone's companion animal didn't make it.

"Cats who survived are on their fourth litters since the storm," says Kathy Sweeney, food/water coordinator for Lakeview, New Orleans. "And their cycles are off. It is non-stop kitten season here." Sweeney speculates 10% of Lakeview homeowners are back since Katrina pounded 7th Street Canal floodwalls, unloading 14 feet of water in this middleclass neighborhood by Lake Ponchartrain.

Cats huddle under homes and moldy furniture. Dogs wander by train tracks, Sweeney says. A Chihuahua, Lab and brown mutt form an unusual pack seen at a cemetery since the storm.

To cope with escalating ferals Billot leads Plaquemines Cat Action Team (PCAT), formed by Alley Cat Allies, a national feral cat advocacy organization. She and partner Vivian Cotton of Plaquemines Animal Welfare Society work with local government to improve feral/stray cat welfare through TNR (trap, neuter, and return) and other long-term alternatives to euthanasia.

Ramona Billot has recovered animals in lower Plaquemines since she returned to her damaged Belle Chasse home weeks after the hurricane. She believes some 25% of evacuees are back, but most no longer look for pets they presume dead.

Yet Billot notes at least half of the 300 or more animals she tracks on weekly feeding rounds are former companions. And the head count is growing. "Dogs and cats multiply continually here because the majority of Katrina survivors were never altered or rescued," she says.

How Many More Are Out There?

Robin Beaulieu envisions two to three more years of Katrina animal aid. "Many animals I trap are former pets left behind," she says. "In Gentilly, I recently photographed a Shepherd mix wearing tags and a blue collar. I think hundreds more like him are out there."

Beaulieu and Charlotte Bass-Lilly run Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO), a group cofounded by Jane Garrison, Pia Salk and David Meyer in October 2005 to rescue, feed and reunite hurricane displaced animals. As ARNO's original food/water assignments director, ground director Cadi Schiffer and I managed 2800 stations over 650 sq. miles in Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines.

Traci Kestler operates ARNO's food/water program. Beaulieu, shelter director, and Bass-Lilly, executive director, manage LA/MS rescue and triage injured, newborn, or abused animals. ARNO advocates spay/neuter, foster and adoption.

At ARNO's full shelter in Harahan, LA, Victoria Clark, 13, shows up in hospital scrubs to clean cages and litter boxes. Bobbi Lee drives from Birmingham, AL to scoop poop for canine tenants like Mr. Shivers, a Chihuahua dumped by a lake, and Gateway, a kiss-loving Spaniel mix.

For some volunteers, the calling requires new digs. Ryan Gares of Madison, Wisconsin lives in his RV Winnebago on ARNO grounds and Tom is a self-described "van camper." Anastasia Crider of Metairie, aka "Cat Lady," is on site daily for traumatized and felines.

Jackie Quick started out at ARNO's Magazine Street camp in December 2005. He moved to Metairie when ARNO united with Best Friends Animal Society to extend animal relief into 2006. Quick currently resides in ARNO's Plauche Street warehouse, managing the kennel, supplies and special projects.

Quick, who doesn't know when needs will evolve from disaster relief to municipal animal control, is committed for the long haul.
Cats who survived Katrina live in the streets, on their 3rd or 4th litter 378x600 Bobbie Lee, Victoria Clark, shelter manager Robin Beaulieu, and Brenda Shoss caring for rescued animals at ARNO 370x425
Kinship Circle Katrina animal transport 661x614

A Car Full Of Kiddens

A fog blankets New Orleans the morning of our departure. Kristy McShan of Lafayette, LA meets Kathy Sweeney, Ramona Billot, Grady and I outside ARNO to load 15 cats for our 10-hour trek to St. Louis. Most of the Katrina kitties are headed for Felines Forever, a rescue, rehab and adoption nonprofit in St. Louis. Sammie, a blue-eyed beauty, goes home to Jill Carles, a childhood neighbor of mine.

And Baby Noah joins my own family. In Lakeview, someone had scribbled Noah's Ark across a boat still perched on a front lawn. This image inspired Baby Noah's name: Baby, a New Orleans term of endearment, and Noah for the epic floods. The teeny tuxedo began life as a no-name kitten, born amid ruins and returning evacuees unable to cope with animals.

Katrina's Diaspora seems never-ending. But for the animals, migration from the Gulf Coast may be their salvation. Many financially strapped residents in FEMA trailers can no longer provide for pets. Thus, surrender rates remain irregularly high and adoption rates low. With area shelters filled to capacity, rescue groups hope to transport animals to no-kill shelters around the country.

"At what point do we stop?" asks longtime Katrina rescuer Pam Leavy. "I have no idea. But this disaster could have happened to any of us. Our own beloved animals could have been tossed into the streets. I'd hope someone would look after them, as we are now.