The small crowd broke into cheers and applause as the Montgomery County Humane Society's Mobile Adoption Unit drove into a parking lot Monday afternoon on South Stonestreet Avenue in Rockville.
Hugs and tears followed as the truck doors opened and Humane Society employees began handing out the 26 dogs and five cats they had brought back from an animal shelter in flood-ravaged coastal Louisiana after a 40-hour drive.
Among the animals was a large but gentle Rottweiler with a sleek black coat that had been pulled from the floodwaters by a rescuers in a boat. There also were two tiny black Labrador retriever puppies, too young to be separated from their mother, that had been found on a bridge.
And there were five more Lab-mix puppies, including two that had been rescued from a roof, their brown spotted paws bearing scorch marks from the hot shingles.
The group of six employees and volunteers and their three-truck caravan had traveled nearly nonstop to bring the animals to the county after delivering several tons of donated pet supplies to an improvised animal shelter at an expo center in Gonzales, La.
Over the weekend in Gonzales, the group helped process and care for abandoned and rescued animals that poured into the shelter, sometimes at the rate of 400 per hour.
"It's incomprehensible what we saw," said Allan Cohen, a member of the society's board of directors. "There were over 1,400 dogs when we got there. There were over 4,000 when we left."
The trip became very personal for the rescue team. For veterinary technician Jennifer Hammond, the drive home became a fight against death as she battled to keep one of the Lab puppies alive after it showed signs ofparvovirus, a disease fatal to puppies if not treated early.
Using a dropper and then a catheter inserted with the help of a veterinarian in Meridian, Miss., who answered the group's distress call, she nursed the puppy through the night, her team members said.
When the animals were handed off the truck, they were quickly surrounded by the crowd. Tails wagging furiously, the dogs were put on leashes and led to a triage area to be examined by a veterinarian. The society had set up the clinic outside its building, which also houses the Ark Pet Supply and Grooming Store and a state-of-the-art kennel that is under construction.
Society officials couldn't help commenting on the aptness of the name that they'd chosen for the pet supply store.
"When we were brainstorming, we came up with 'the Ark' and it struck me -- how appropriate that we are using it for victims of a flood," society vice president Aileen Montgomery said.
As the animals were examined by Olney veterinarian Sol Perl, they were checked for an imbedded microchip carrying information about registration and ownership. Those that didn't have microchips were injected with one so that the society could keep a registry on the rare chance that their owners might track them down.
The society planned to keep the animals for 30 days to give the owners an opportunity to find their pets, according to Margaret Zanville, its president. The animals will be euthanized if no one adopts them.
For now, the society was looking for foster families, and by the looks on the faces of the crowd, there would be many takers. By day's end, nearly all the animals had found homes, according to Cohen.
Cheri Conner of Damascus said she'd come expressly to get a miniature poodle that she'd heard was among the rescued animals.
"I knew they had a poodle and I came to claim the poodle," she said as she nuzzled the dog's curly white fur.
The Katrina dogs were fussed over as an occasional "I'll take this one home" was heard. Even a television newsman was caught up in the scene, pulling out his cell phone to check with his wife about taking home a tiny brown puppy.
None of the animals, which had been hand-chosen by the rescue team, were badly injured. Most suffered from dehydration, starvation and infestation by parasites, all curable problems, Perl said.
"Basically, all these guys are going to make it," he said. "They've been through hell and they're coming back."