At midnight in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 900 exhausted dogs, cats, horses and the occasional goat and pig slept close together in their outdoor shelters. The quiet was erie, interrupted only by a whimper or sigh from one of the 700 dogs or a soft snort from a horse. In six hours, I would begin the hardest and most important work of my life.
Hurricane Katrina left unprecedented distruction as it ripped through coastal Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. Although New Orleans garnered most of the media attention, it was Mississippi that bore the brunt of the storm; the ‘dirty side’ as hurricane experts call it. Dogs plucked from rooftops and floating debris along with cats found hiding in rubble piles were brought here, to a fairgrounds facility, a small city really. Each barn was packed with pets in crates. These animals were the lucky ones.
I was there for a week, part of the largest disaster-based pet rescue operation ever. Below are excerpts from my daily journal:
Day 2- Each night, dogs and cats are brought here from the coast in trucks and buses, some without air conditioning. The animals are in a sad state, often soaked with sewage and sitting in their own waste, too. They have a long drive from the coast, plucked from rooftops and attics and swimming in debris-filled waters. The animal handlers must get the trucks filled before coming to Hattiesburg, so the first ones picked up can wait in the truck most of the day before getting to us. I line up with other volunteers as the dogs come out of the trucks. The vets in gowns and masks first bathe them in special de-tox solution, and then hand them off to a volunteer. My hand-off is an older Rottweiler-shepherd mix, a female. She is a bit overwhelmed, but polite. For many, this is the most handling and vet care they have received in a long time, maybe ever. I am affected by their total trust of us; complete strangers, who handle them hurriedly in order to get to the ones waiting in the truck. I then take my female mix to a vet, who examines her more thoroughly than I expected. She receives a set of vaccinations. I noticed her walk was a bit stiff, and I mentioned that to the vet, who agreed with me and prescribed an anti-inflammatory. The vet smiles and says, “She’ll feel better now.” I feel good about what we have done for her. I find her a clean and roomy crate with fresh water and food. She is next to a large, very old lab with cataracts in his eyes. I say to his handler, “Oh, poor guy!” The handler tells me he was picked up on the side of the road, gnawing on a cat carcass. At this point I am glad I am not on the coast at the front lines to see these sights.
Day 3-In the dog barn I worked in, I was put in charge of the 110 dogs in my aisle. We also had about 25 cats, but the cat people rotate around and tend to them. It is a dirt floor barn, with permanent stalls, about 12 ft. by 12 ft. The heat and humidity was terrible, about 98 degrees during the mid-day hours and no clouds. The HSUS did a great job rotating volunteers, so no one burned out, although many volunteers left after one day due to the heat. I thought we must be here at a peak time, when lots of animals are still coming in from the coast every night, but not many are leaving yet. We were hoping for more owners coming to claim pets, and for more shelters to take in fosters. Many local shelters were destroyed in the hurricane, some with animals inside perishing alone and in fear. Because we are here only a week, part of the challenge is to scout and train new volunteers to be leaders after we leave. I tried to make the aisle as well equipped as I could. I knew the “go to” supply guy who could get anything. Fans, pallets, cages, special veterinary diets, can openers, duct tape, etc. All things you wouldn’t expect to have difficulty finding, but here in Hattiesburg, post-hurricane, everything was scarce.
An adorable yellow lab female, came in later, young and very, very skinny. She had 7 pups with her, so new their eyes weren’t open yet. Their innocence was striking, especially in this environment, and I knew they were born during the hurricane, or in the immediate aftermath. It took everything the young mother dog had just to nourish them, and now her body was paying the price. The mother had diarrhea, so I walked her as late as I was awake, often midnight, and the moment I woke up, I would dash down to her cage. This kept her from having an accident in the crate, and kept the pups clean and healthy. We fed her lots of canned food to help her gain weight and continue to nurse her babies. Despite her young age, she was a sweet and caring mother. I made her as comfortable as possible, finding her an extra large cage, and placing it up on a pallet to keep dust to a minimum. When the volunteers took a break, we all sat on plastic milk crates and each held a puppy. They slept peacefully in our arms, unaware of the stress their mother was under.
Day 5-Happily, the word is getting out and more people are coming to look for their dogs and cats. A young female shepherd went home today, amidst a joyful reunion with her owner. The man who claimed her looked as if he’d been through a war, and indeed he had.
As hurricane raged and the waters rose in the family home, he and his mother and his wife left the house and sought refuge in his owned semi trailer truck. In short order the entire truck was floating and threatened to get swept away. With panic rising, they spied a construction crane nearby and made a swim for it. The smaller dog was held in the mother’s arms, but during the swim to the crane, was lost and likely drowned. The larger female shepherd swam with them but currents took her away. The family last saw her swimming toward a large tree. As they reached the crane, they hung onto it for about four hours until the winds and waters began to recede. As the top of the crane’s cab appeared, the family was able to rest there. The man decided to look for the shepherd and check on the house, so be began to wade back in chest-deep water. As he went the distance, about a city block, he noticed the eyes of displaced alligators on him. When he arrived at the house, a fire had started upstairs, due to electrical shorts. He ran in and salvaged a few mementos, sheer adrenaline keeping him going, and got burned in the process. The family had lost their home and their pets, and very nearly their lives. His wife eventually was taken to a hospital where she was treated for serious injuries. This man had all the marks of struggle against nature’s fury, including burns on his face and hands and deep cuts and bruises from the desperate hold they had on the crane, but all that stress and pain melted away when he saw his dog in crate number 622. The recognition was instant, and as he exclaimed, “There’s my girl” the formerly lethargic dog began yelping and squealing. We opened the cage door and they fell on the dirt floor together, crying, laughing and barking for all they were worth. As he told us his story, we gathered up a care kit of supplies for him, all the dog food he could carry, and a leash and good collar. The animal rescuers on the coast had found his shepherd after more than two weeks on her own, and she made her way here to the holding facility. I was so sorry for all his pain and loss, but he was completely overjoyed at the comfort of his dog.
Day 7-We are planning to leave early AM after a few hours of much needed sleep, but it turns out there is a stock trailer coming from Vero Beach to bring animals back to our local shelter. Because the stock trailer is open to the air, (no air conditioning) it is decided we will leave tonight. (What??? Didn’t they realize we have been up and working on little sleep in 100 degree heat since 6:00AM?) I found out the plan was to load up the trailer with dog crates and bungee them to the sides for safety, and have the trailer follow us in the camper all the way back. The heat dictates we leave at night when it is cool. We’ll stay awake knowing we are leading a caravan of stressed, but lucky dogs. The cats will have it easy, they’ll ride with us in the camper with A/C blasting.
It’s now 11:00PM, and we were almost ready to go. I glanced at the other two ladies I came with. They looked even more bedraggled and sweaty than I did, so I asked, ”Would you like me to drive first?” The gratitude and relief on their faces was obvious. I psyched myself up by pouring ice water over my head and downing some cold Diet Coke, and then got a quick tutoring on driving the camper: “She’ll flip if you turn too fast, and you’ll need a lot longer braking time.” Great, should be a piece of cake.
We headed out, and carefully made our way home. Sue sat up front with me and we talked and talked for three and a half hours, then Gloria, who has been stretched out in back, took over after a gas, bathroom and caffeine stop. The trip went well. At our pit stops, I was elected to go into the trailer and check on the dogs, offering water and making sure they looked OK. Even though it was a 14-hour trip, we were reluctant to take them out of the crates for bathroom breaks at the gas stations. What if one got loose? Plus, we had 15, so it would have taken an hour that we couldn’t spare. As the sun rose, we knew the high heat was coming mid-day and wanted to be home by then. When I checked on them the first time, there was a skinny older female, a large Mastiff type mix, with her nipples hanging so low they nearly brushed the ground. Her face was so sad; I knew why our shelter director had picked her to go with us. She had obviously been overbred and underfed, and no one was likely to come looking for her. She had soiled her crate and would not lie down. I knew she would try to stand up the whole way so I decided to take her out while Gloria cleaned her crate. As she came out of her crate, we were shocked to see her condition. She had lost her hair on at least half her body, and seemed depressed. She was thin and had been used hard, and I hoped her life was going to improve starting right now. When we put her back in the crate, she immediately lay down and gratefully lapped her water. We smiled, and got back in the camper, inspired to drive our precious cargo home.