Strays Of Hope

Dogs left at Louisiana State University drink clean water provided by animal rescue workers.
Dogs left at Louisiana State University drink clean water provided by animal rescue workers. (Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2005

GONZALES, La. Suffer the pooches, and the other abandoned creatures of the storm.

They are listless, just lethargic. Or they are scared, if quivering is any measure. And the really noisy ones are barking ferociously, like the bodacious brown pit-bull-looking thing who fixes his gaze on a visitor and snarls so intensely one can imagine him warning, "Get me outta here, or else!"

Paula Atzenhoffer is examining them all, and holding a tissue to her nose -- not from the overpowering stench of these hundreds upon hundreds of pets, but because she's crying. She's come here to the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in search of her canine brood.

The last she saw of them was that awful Friday after Katrina. The police who came to rescue Atzenhoffer and her 13-year-old grandson Charles from the streets of New Orleans made them leave their beloved dogs behind: Scout the sheltie, Datsun the dachshund and the dean of this canine crew, a Boston terrier named Pepe Le Pew. Three pampered pets left to fend for themselves.

Atzenhoffer carries her doggy photo album to this emergency outdoor animal shelter. It will help her identify her dogs and prove ownership, should she find them as she walks from cage to cage amid the thick, hot air stirred by hundreds of portable fans. Of the three, Atzenhoffer's especially worried about Pepe.

"Pepe had surgery three months ago, kidney stones. And he has seizures," she explains delicately, wiping her eyes. "They're all such sweethearts. We dress them up for Halloween." In one photo they're each wearing a Santa hat. "These dogs are like our children."

This reality is playing out for hundreds of other pet owners each day at this Noah's ark of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, and on the streets of New Orleans and other towns along the Gulf, where pets are part of the ongoing evacuation even two weeks after the storm. And they are part of the trauma many people surely still suffer. Who can forget the little boy who cried so mightily that he threw up when rescuers wrenched from his arms his dog named Snowball?

"People were staying because they wouldn't leave their animals," says Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which runs the Lamar-Dixon operation.

So, as rescue boats ply the rivery streets of New Orleans each day to find humans, so too do pet rescue boats search for marooned pets. Sometimes animals and their owners are found together. Sometimes the animals are found alone and sick from drinking fetid, contaminated street water.

Brett Huff from the Humane Society of Missouri  rescues a cat from the water in New Orleans.
Brett Huff from the Humane Society of Missouri rescues a cat from the water in New Orleans.(Carol Guzy - The Washington Post)
They are brought here to Lamar-Dixon, in a small town between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. At its busiest, in the days after the storm, this facility held up to 2,000 dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and horses, along with pet mice, rats, frogs and pythons, even a boa stored inside a plastic bin wrapped with duct tape, lest the creature escape and eat some of the hamsters and ferrets nearby. A similar facility, at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, is housing more than a thousand pets. Rene Bafalis, spokeswoman for the national Humane Society, says roughly 60 percent of New Orleans residents were pet owners.

Hundreds more pets arrive at Lamar-Dixon each day, while similar numbers are dispatched to smaller shelters for longer-term care. The numbers have been so overwhelming that the Humane Society is trying to keep it to 1,300, to better offer proper interim care of ailments such as canine dysentery, infections, cuts, malnutrition and dehydration. With perhaps 50 percent of New Orleans still under water, the flood of pets is not expected to abate until the search-and-rescue operation is complete.

Instead of Noah, there are some 450 workers here: vets and staffers from the national and local Humane Society groups, as well as the U.S. Public Health Service and FEMA, along with volunteer vets and ordinary people. There have been about 200 reunions here since the center opened two days after Katrina struck, Pacelle says.

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