|On a recent Thursday afternoon, I called a staff meeting as Iíve so often done. Itís a time to share updates with the staff as well as give them the opportunity to ask any questions they might have. But on this late afternoon we were not cramped tightly in our small back office on Japonica Street. We werenít shooing away flies that had become permanent fixtures in our well-worn building. I didnít look out a gathering of 60 or more faces of vet techs, adoption counselors, animal care attendants, animal control officers, and other office staff. The ever present sound of 400 plus dogs and cats didnít bounce off the walls. We were sitting under a tree in Algiers, gathered around a makeshift picnic table, my staff and me, all 10 of us, on this day. The staff of 65 diverse and wonderful folks I loved seeing at work everyday has diminished greatly in size.
There is no clinic waiting room filled to capacity with the couple from Mid-City, the student from Tulane or the elderly woman from the 9th ward. There is no cluster of volunteer Care Cadets walking dogs in the courtyard. There is no Japonica Street.
What there is is an incredible sadness that fills me daily for the animals of New Orleans. The Rottweiller, the pit bull, the German shepherd mix that died in flood waters after being left tethered to a fence or a porch or a balcony. The animals whose owners did not have the means to evacuate and who were left behind as their caretaker was rescued from the roof of a home overcome with waters from breeched levees. The dogs whose top coat peeled away as easily as a banana skin after days of swimming in pools of contaminated waters, slick with oil, silt and salt from Lake Pontchartrain. When I think of the animals, Iím filled with an incredible sense of loss, sadness, and even anger. Katrina brought our pet overpopulation problem national attention and exposed the high level of neglect and care for a large portion of New Orleansí furred friends.
Rewind to five weeks ago. Itís approaching midnight at the temporary shelter weíve established at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, Louisiana. Iíve lost count of how many phone calls I havenít returned. Cell phones have become as critical as water, and at one point I juggle three, and later only two, having lost one somewhere between my almost daily trips from Gonzales to New Orleans and back again. On this particular night we have over 1,200 animals in the shelter. We cannot humanely house anymore. But just outside the entrance gates of Lamar, carloads and caravans of animal rescuers are waiting at the gates with 750 animals that have been rescued from New Orleans. There are many eager rescuers, but fewer willing to stay behind and care for those being sheltered. There is a mixture of chaos, frustration, and battling philosophies among the varying groups and individual rescuers. It wonít be the last time.
Itís after 2:00 a.m. when my assistant, Gloria Dauphin, I and leave Lamar and drive the 10 miles to my fatherís home just outside Baton Rouge where 15 of us are bunked. There were no available hotel rooms or apartments. I walk around a maze of sleeping bags and air mattresses. I open one bedroom door where I observe our chief humane officer, Kathryn Destreza, in a half-sitting, half-reclining position, still in her uniform, but asleep. I look for an extra blanket for Gloria, and point her to the only remaining free space in the house Ė a small love seat, normally the dogís couch. I crash in my little brotherís empty bedroom with Glen, one of our officers, whose air mattress is on the floor. Tomorrow we have to be up by 5:00 a.m.
Many nights I fell asleep dog-tired, missing my home and my daily rituals; missing my husband Dan, who was hunkered down himself, caring for animals at Audubon Zoo; missing our four dogs. More than six weeks would pass before I would finally be able to bring home two of our four dogsí from Houston. Thankfully, Houston Zoo friends cared for them since we were working such long hours. Weeks would pass before I would finally sleep in my own bed, but as I do so often, I remind myself how fortunate I am to not have lost everything.
Our animal control officers (ACOís) and animal care attendants (ACAís) are operating on little or no sleep. One of our senior ACAís, George, has lost his home in the 9th ward. George is like a machine. He just doesnít stop. A large percentage of our staff has suffered the same loss. They lost everything; yet they continued to go back into the city, rescuing and saving animals lives.
I worry for them because not only have they endured personal loses, they have also witnessed horrific images that will last with them forever. They saw emaciated animals too weak to stand; theyíve seen half eaten carcasses, animals drowned in high waters, their bodies still tied the fence where they were left. Theyíve encountered once friendly dogs gone feral from wandering the streets, suffering from extreme thirst and starvation. They saw the 9th ward neighborhood that was home for us totally destroyed, homes shifted off their foundation lying in the middle of the street.
The first day we entered the city, on September 2nd, military and police forced us to pull out after only a couple of hours. The reports of shooting and other rampant crimes had turned New Orleans into a virtual war zone. One of our officers, Ranero, remarked that she felt like she was living in a twilight zone; she was in a bad dream and she just wanted to wake up.
Chaos quickly ensued in the early days as the rescue lists grew by the thousands. The inability to communicate by land lines and the inability to install computer systems in those early days made it challenging to organize one central list that everyone could work from. To this day weíre still recovering from that and moving mountains to reunite owners with pets that had to be transported all over the country. The calls for help from people looking for their animals were often heartbreaking and unforgettable.
I feel guilty sleeping even a few hours, but I know I canít continue without just a little. Images of animals in water, scared, and suffering play over and over again in my head. I try to push them out by staying focused on the task at hand. I was doing fairly well until being interviewed by an NPR reporter who asked me questions about individual animals and my staff. After apologizing for crying, she asked me if Iíd had a day off. I hadnít. It had been a month.
When you experience such sadness, you have a tendency to hang on to the lighter moments as well. In the later days as rescue calls begin to wane, and owners began calling looking for their pets, Iíll never forget the call we received from a woman looking for her pet snake. She lived in the French Quarter and her snake had been rescued. She called on a Wednesday and she desperately needed to find her snake by Friday. She had to have it by Friday. We couldnít help but wonder if she was an exotic dancer who needed her accessory before she paraded across a French Quarter stage on Friday night. It was a crazy time.
The scene at Lamar Dixon was a hub of never-ending activity. And the weather was very hot. Very hot. In a short time, our skin became weather beaten. Volunteers from all over the country swarmed around; sweaty, bleary-eyed, and plain old tired. Animal control officers from the Louisiana SPCA, the SPCA of Texas and other cities converged back at command central after 7 p.m. every night, wide-eyed from lack of sleep. The look on their faces reminded me of photos Iíve seen in Time Magazine of young soldiers fresh off the battlefields in Iraq.
In these most difficult times we had the support of colleagues from across the country and thatís something I will never forget. When we initially coordinated the temporary shelter on August 31, we did so with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and the Veterinary Medical Association. Many animal welfare organizations from San Diego, Houston, Boston, Lafayette, New York, Oregon, Arizona and Connecticut set-up camp with us. The Humane Society of the United States was there. The ASPCA of New York joined forces, too, and the support they gave to us, and continue to do so, is immeasurable. They, along with many others, became our guardian angels.
RVís and Winnebagoís parked alongside our colorful spay/neuter mobile unit. For a time, our mobile unit served as command central at Lamar. Many days it was a struggle to keep it running. Generators had to be repaired. We were using it to the max just to keep our many cell phone batteries juiced. It was almost comical to see us scurrying from trailer to trailer looking for battery juice to print documents, return phone calls and run laptops. When Hurricane Rita set its sights on Texas, we drove the mobile center to the Houston SPCA so they could use it in their own rescue efforts. We broke down on the way, which only added to the bedlam of daily life.
After the military took control of the city, we set-up command in the cityís Emergency Operations Center in the Hyatt Hotel. We occupied a desk in the hotelís cavernous ballroom. Along with the Louisiana SPCA, there was FEMA, the Red Cross, Sewerage and Water Board, Entergy, USDA, CDC and a host of many other agencies. During this time, I made daily trips back and forth between New Orleans and Gonzales.
The military accompanied me to survey the damage, for the first time, at Japonica Street. When I look at the video tape of what was once our building; furniture thrown across rooms; gaping holes; silt and mold; what stands out on the tape are all the times I uttered ďOh my God!,Ē upon seeing the damage. The stanching smell stays in my nostrils for days. We have lost records and files. Just days before Katrina hit, we had just finalized an anti-dogfighting campaign of t-shirts and we were about to post them on our website. All the shirts were ruined. Thankfully, we had evacuated with files from a few of our biggest dogfighting busts preserving important evidence.
As I write this, the Japonica Street shelter that has been a part of New Orleans since the early 60ís is scheduled to be gutted any day now. I have a skeleton staff based here in New Orleans and a few staff working remotely from other parts of the state. We are retrofitting a former coffee warehouse in Algiers into an animal shelter. We still have colleagues coming in from other parts of the country to help us re-build. For now, we are only managing animal control and have suspended other normal activities. Our adoption services, veterinary clinic and the other humane programs we provided are temporarily on hold until we can re-build a staff. Like any other organization, we are challenged by the limited housing available in the city. Some of our staff are still living in friend of a friendís homes. Many of our remaining ACAís and ACOís are living in a group house setting in Donaldsonville, Louisiana Ė doing the long commute to New Orleans every day. In collaboration with our colleagues, weíve rescued over 8,500 animals.
During the staff meeting I held in Algiers, as we gathered around the picnic table, I shared with them my thoughts that in all this sadness, destruction and massive change there is good and bad. I had learned only the day prior that I would be losing two key members of my staff. They had seen their city die before their eyes, witnessed animal tragedies no one should ever have to see, had no time to deal with their own losses and they needed a break. They need to go away for a while and clear their heads. They need to re-group. I cry when I think of losing them, but I certainly understand. I stand in awe of this staff that just continues to forge ahead.
I share with them my strong belief that we can bounce back from this to a place stronger and better than we were before. We are receiving immeasurable support from colleagues everywhere. Thanks to the generosity of animal lovers, shelter colleagues and vendors across the country, we are re-building with tools at hand that we didnít have at Japonica Street. Our building on Japonica Street was falling apart. Now we can start anew. The opportunities are limitless.
Iíve often said that my work with the Louisiana SPCA is the most rewarding, fulfilling thing I have ever done. Iíve always felt fortunate to work with a group of people who are so diverse and unique in their respective backgrounds and lifestyles. I have always relished the challenges of working in animal welfare in Louisiana, and particularly New Orleans, where the need is great.
In spite of Katrina, and in a strange way because of Katrina, I still do.
Laura Maloney is Executive Director of the Louisiana SPCA (LA/SPCA) To make a donation to this fine organization, please go to www.la-spca.org