1:06 am Tuesday morning- I have just returned from New Orleans for the third time. I have a lot to say here.
I went there just several days ago, although, as usual, it feels like a lifetime ago. My goal was to see if we could find any more live pets trapped in homes, or if it was time to concentrate on all the pets running around in dangerous conditions on the streets.
I arrived Friday afternoon, and immediately went to our new staging area near the Southern Animal Foundation on Magazine St. Holly and Rob have been working around the clock to manage the effort and keep things going on the ground. If we were once a military force, we are now just a guerilla force with nearly no supplies, operating out of a parking lot. We are doing all we can to get some funds and supplies and in the last two days things seem to have improved a bit.
I loaded up my rental van with supplies, and it was already after dark when I began checking houses on our list of owners who reported their pets were left in homes before the hurricane, and needed rescue. The curfew in most parts of the city is now midnight. I began navigating the city streets in the dark, which is very difficult because in most areas, street lights are still out and the street signs were long ago either blown away entirely, or worse, spun around by the wind, making street navigation extraordinarily frustrating without GPS (which I did not have).
In the dark, one by one I began entering destroyed homes, alone and with no light but my flashlight. If going into musty, moldy, destroyed homes looking for starving pets is creepy in the day time, which it is, I can tell you it is much worse at night. In a deserted city, moving through room after room of muck-soaked debris, finding dead and decomposing animals, with the wind blowing and not a soul but me with a flashlight—it’s a weird experience, to say the least. Not for the weak of spirit. As I was driving in a particularly eerie part of the city, my brother got through to me on the cell and really hammered in the real danger--people thinking I am some kind of looter and shooting me. He finally got through to me, in a way. Instead of stopping, I crossed over the Mississippi to east New Orleans and talked my way past a National Guard check point and into an area where residents have not yet been allowed back. I continued to do my midnight searching there. I had Jane on the line in the middle of the night as I went through one house where several dogs had been reported left. Clearly the owner had been back and taken the dogs and much of the remaining belongings in the house, but he had left a fish tank with one dead guppy, but one live one. How hard would it have been to take his fish? So, with Jane on the line, I rummaged through the battered kitchen, found a glass jar with a lid, and managed to rescue the guppy-hey, all things great and small-a life is a life.
But most of the night was far more somber. I entered a pitch dark dog boarding kennel with dogs dead in the washbasin and the putrid smell of rotting carcasses. By the light of my flashlight, I saw carcasses of cats that had died, trapped, after being locked in bathrooms. House after house contained nothing but morbid signs of a catastrophe gone by, or no sign of pets at all because they had either been rescued by us or by their owners. Finally, I was stopped by the police, who found it really weird I was out in the middle of the night looking for pets in houses, so I decided it was time to call it a night and start over the next morning. I spent the next several hours, until almost 4am, preparing a special list of addresses for the most likely areas Jane and I could think of where pets might still be alone. Dorothy of dogdetective.com had refined that list further by looking for the words "locked” or “trapped” or “attic" in the description owners had given. Our thinking was that animals left in yards, for example, would already have been found, but a pet that was locked in or in an attic might not yet have been rescued and might still be alive.
The next morning I jumped in to give Rob a break and led the early-morning meeting. Then I headed out again, alone, to cover as many houses as possible. I literally ran from my car into houses, searching carefully every room, looking in every closet, climbing into attics, some collapsing into the rooms below. In all I must have visited and thoroughly searched upwards of 40 homes in one day--three times what a team would normally do, and I found nothing. Nothing. Every home had already been opened by us or an owner, some clearly a long time ago. I finished the day very discouraged to have not yet found a single pet still needing my help, and feeling that time was running out.
I staggered back to the apartment where some of us were staying, courtesy of a displaced renter. After a few hours of sleep I began again on Sunday. I headed out to Saint Bernard Parish, having no trouble (which is not always the case) getting past the rather eastern-bloc military barricade of stacked crushed cars. I saw homes where the flood had gone beyond the ceiling. House after house, no pets to be seen. I tried to keep my spirits up as I headed to a house where the owner had said a cat named Tiger had been left in a second-story apartment unit above the garage with some food and water. In a devastated area not covered as thoroughly by us as others, and safe above the flood, this cat might still be alive! I sped there through rubble-and-mud-filled and deserted streets, arriving at the house. There, spray painted on the house by one of our rescuers, was the words "cat with owner".
My heart sank. I had been denied my chance to save a life... and then what must seem obvious to anyone else hit me. I had lost my focus. My ego, which is such a strong motivator for me to act bravely and quickly, had led me astray. I walked up the muddy stairs to the room above the garage, verified that no cat was present and smiled to myself and said, as my Australian friends do, "Good on you, Tiger, you survived." What better thing? Tiger survived and was with his/her owner. This should make me ecstatic, not sad. At that moment I realized that each house I visited that had already been visited by an owner or us was in fact a victory. It became clear to me I was not going to meet my goal of saving one pet starved in a home, because, I now honestly believe, there are none left to save--or at least none remaining on the lists we have. The list is, after all, a list of only those pet guardians who ever heard of the 1-800 phone number HSUS set up, and only those who cared enough about their pets to call. Naturally, first chance they got, they came home. Some found their pets had been rescued by us, some found their pets alive, and some found them dead. But it is clear to me now, the cases reported on our list have been resolved already, whether we know it or not. There are, I think, still pets trapped in homes, but clean-up workers or landlords will have to find them and call us, and this is, in fact, still happening each day, and we of course respond instantly.
Seeing that our list is no longer of use was the kind of closure for me that Dorothy, Jane or Pia will never have, and I realize now why I had to go there to see for myself. None of us could ever look at a list that said, "Please, please rescue Tiger--He had some food and water and is trapped on the second floor" and believe that we should not go there even today and check it along with every remaining house on the list. We never had enough people to finish the list and we were late in getting it, but all it is now is a list of desperate pleas, no longer current, and I believe it does not tell the truth of what is out there. Continuing to go to houses on the list takes people off the real task of feeding and saving those pets who did survive and are now on the streets, under homes, and running in packs. The official search and rescue in homes in New Orleans is now over-not because any government agency or animal group said it is over, but because we have no way of finding more pets to save. The reality on the ground dictates our actions, not some edict from someone in an office. We are now concentrating on rescuing pets on the streets. It was so hard for me to say this, knowing I might be condemning that one remaining pet starving in a home on our list, but my heart and mind, and experience of covering perhaps 60 homes in 36 hours tells me that pets on our list are no longer waiting for us to save them. And the only way Dorothy, Jane and Pia would believe it was if it came from my mouth. I was sad to have worked so hard without saving one more, but now I feel that this is good. None remain starving or trapped that I can go help. They are rescued or at peace with God. It's out of my hands. It is time to finally, really, physically and mentally go home.
Something terrible happened in New Orleans. Something so terrible that if you were not there and did not see it or smell it, you cannot imagine it. If you were there, you understand what I am saying. We who went there and saw this horrible site, this place of dead and starving pets, of lives and homes and businesses in ruins, who smelled the stink of rotting sewage, flesh and poisons, whose eyes burned - we have a sense a what occurred and we will never be the same.
I got back to the apartment where we were staying too late Sunday night to find a place to eat that was open in the now re-opening Garden district of the city. So I asked Holly if there was any food. There was a can of baked beans, but no can opener. There was a pop top can of refried beans, but trust me, cold out of a can it is no good- I tasted it. I told Holly that there was a supermarket just a mile away- fully stocked and open. I joked that weeks from now, the entire city will be functional, except for a group of animal rescue volunteers camped out in an apartment eating canned rations, not unlike Japanese soldiers in caves on islands who never heard that the war ended. Things in New Orleans are, in some areas, returning to life. In other areas they will have to tear down everything and start again, and this poses the new threat...
Even before the hurricane, New Orleans had a very bad stray animal problem. Now there are many more dogs and cats on the street, many former pets, and many fewer people in the city to care for them. To make matters worse, many buildings will soon be destroyed, and these pets are hiding there. We must now get those pets off the streets, and that is the challenge Jane has turned herself towards.
I continued to work Monday, responding to those calls of pets in distress, and I did get to save my animal--two, actually. Our rescuers had come across a frightened and potentially aggressive black chow, living on a porch. The poor dog had survived the flood waters which barely stayed below the raised porch level, and had been fed by a kind neighbor who had returned. The neighbor said her name was Ebony (photo in my photo album on 1-800-Save-A-Pet.com). The neighbor had seen the owners pull up in a car, load what belongings they could, and leave the dog behind saying they didn't want her. When I arrived with a catch pole (a pole with a soft noose to grab hold of an aggressive or frightened animal), Ebony was huddled under a small coffee table on the porch, behind a potted plant, growling. That dog had been on that porch for weeks, and would let no one touch her. She was so scared, and that porch was the only safe place in the world for her right then.
I approached slowly and indirectly, opening up a can of cat food upwind and letting her smell it. I slowly placed it on the porch and kneeled down on the front lawn, looking away from her. Slowly, I moved up the steps and bit by bit began clearing away chairs and other items so I would be able to have a clear space. She was barking up a storm, but I could tell, she was just scared. She was a black chow, just like my rescue pup at home, and I knew this girl was going to get rescued now. Slowly, I leaned the pole toward her and placed the noose around her neck as she bit at it. Once around her neck I pulled it snug, but not too tight, and I sat down. There I stayed for maybe an hour. Just me and her. She fell asleep only to notice my hand coming close and growl again. All I wanted was to pet her. I knew that forcing her into the crate at this point would just further traumatize her, and I decided she could take whatever time she needed. This porch was her only safe place.
I called the original rescuer, Michelle, who had seen her. She said she wanted to take this pup home to Oregon. I told her to come back and sit with the dog for as long as it takes to get to pet her. She came over and sat down and I left to answer another call for a cat found healthy in an upper floor of an apartment complex.
So I drove out, back to East New Orleans where I had been in the dark two nights before, and after considerable trouble finding the apartment number in this huge complex, I went in an open door and up two flights of stairs and heard the cat. This orange tabby came right up to me like we were best friends. He looked great, I petted him and placed an open can of cat food in the carrier and he waltzed right in. I closed the carrier, but apparently did not clip it properly when I assembled it because walking outside back to the van, the door popped open and he jumped out! I was on the phone with Jane, getting my next address for an abandoned dog, and suddenly all time stood still. I held my breath and calmly crouched down and spoke to the cat, inviting him to come over to be petted. He thought about it and looked around... and then he came. He came back to me and let me pet him and pick him up and put him back in the carrier. That was a pivotal moment in that cat's life, and he made the right choice. I needed to check on one more dog, get the cat back to our staging area, and catch a plane.
And so, with only an hour left before I had to leave to catch my plane home, I had helped save one last dog and one last cat and I put their photos in my photo album our site. It still felt good because for two days and nights, I had seen nothing alive--nothing but rotting corpses and falling-in roofs. I just wanted to save a life one more time, and Jane knew that. She gave me one more call--A sweet pit bull who had survived the flood in the same area I was in, on the second floor of a house, only to have the owner come home and decide they didn't want the dog. This poor dog was apparently under the porch and I sped off, cat securely in the carrier in the car. The address was hard to find, and the house I did find did not have a porch. But I searched the house and could clearly see a pet had been in there for a long time, and there were tracks in the mud on the first floor. Clearly the address was right. I searched the area, using the smell of cat food on my fingers as a lure, but could find no dog. So I put up a feeding station, allowing the outside faucet to drip into a pan to keep it full of water and placed food beside it. Another rescuer will look again tomorrow. Damn, my last attempt and I didn't succeed. I just wasn't going to get to leave New Orleans on an up note.
It was good that I went back to New Orleans again. It gave me some closure I think. I also got the chance to visit a few of the places where I had left pets in homes with food and water many weeks ago. You see, early on, there was not room in the Gonzales facility for all the pets our teams were rescuing so we were being told to keep pets in homes. There was a also a belief that owners would soon come back, so if we could keep pets in their homes, basically turning the whole city into a shelter of sorts, the pets would soon be reunited with their families. What we didn't know was that hurricane Rita was coming to deliver more flooding, and that many people would never come back--many can't. It was a big mistake for us to leave those pets in homes. One of many. And as many of us do, I sit with the guilt wondering whether the pets we left in homes were ever subsequently rescued by our teams or if owners did, in fact, come back. It is haunting. But I am so happy to say that of the four homes I was able to return to where I had left cats and dogs, there were no dead animals there and all indications were that either an owner or one of our volunteers had since been there and rescued a live animal. I cannot tell you how cathartic this is for me, and I hope it gives hope to others who carry the same guilt and fear I do.
There will be no up-note to end this saga, no clean ending, no neat package with which we can tie up this story. That is what I told Jane and Dorothy, as we have to live with the knowledge that we never succeeded in checking every home of people who called in. There will always be question marks. There was the dog I fed and watered and left in a home on my first day--the place was toxic, but the dog was beside herself with fear, standing on a broken kitchen table in a corner, barking furiously. I left food and water and a broken open window, and spray-painted on the wall, as we all did, that a dog was present and inside. I do not know where that home was because it was my fist day ever in New Orleans and Pia and Dave Kaplowitz were doing the driving and navigation. I don't know if anyone ever went back there or if that poor dog survived. I pray she did. I will never know. We will never know the fate of the pets we sent to Gonzales and if they will ever find their owners -- if they will end up in good homes. With so many out there, I'm sure some will not, in fact I just heard of this terrible situation with Katrina pit bulls sent to someplace in Arkansas where they may have been starved. It’s all just awful. There will be no neat ending to this story.
This is an experience filled with vagueness and mistakes. I have spoken to HSUS, and all of us volunteers want a chance to contribute to a thorough review of all that has happened and many many things that could have been done much better in order to save more pets in the future. All of us who were there will carry with us haunting memories. I got a bit of closure, and of course I have Orlea, the black cat I took home to foster after my first "tour of duty". Here she lies curled on the couch, not far from Roger and Righteous, my other cats who seem to have decided in my absence that she is not so bad. And beneath them on the floor, also curled in a ball, fast asleep, is my black chow Peach. And in New Orleans tonight is a really scared black chow named Ebony who is going to have a great life in Oregon.
So if there is no neat ending, only open questions, let me try to neatly end in this way.
Something terrible happened in New Orleans--to people and to animals. Those words will always be how I begin when I describe this experience and how I end it. But what I do know is that a bunch of people, a bunch of heroes, showed up and saved thousands of animals. In a society whose government works to recover every dead human body but made no official effort that I know of to save one live animal, thousands of people just showed up. They were young and old, men and women. They just got on a plane or got in a car, paid their own way and just showed up, like me. They went on boats, broke through windows, climbed though rancid sludge, saw nightmarish sites, carried emaciated animals in their arms, drove for hours, provided emergency vet care, fed and walked and cared for animals, and shipped animals around the country. As I drove the streets of New Orleans one more time on the way to the airport, there was not a block without our tell-tale spray paint saying "pet rescued".
I believe more died than were ever rescued, but I don't know. What I do know is that while something terrible happened in New Orleans, something amazing happened there too. We showed up, and thanks to Jane and everyone, including many people I never met and so many hundreds who I have not mentioned and whose names I never even knew, we formed an army of life--nothing short of an army of life.
Many of us walk away with guilt and nightmares. If you are a rescuer and you are reading this, we understand each other. We left and felt terribly guilty. Most of us came back. We felt more at home in the horror, taking action, than at home with our friends or in our jobs. We had a purpose--a meaning--an urgency to life that just makes everything else seem so boring and unimportant. We carry guilt and memories that we feel no one can understand except someone who was there. We look at our own pets, happy and healthy, and feel somehow guilty. We hear a dog bark and think to find and rescue them. We know how fast things can go from fine to disaster. We look at healthy pets and can see emaciated pets inside them. I don't know how I'd make it without Pia to talk to. But we need to move on--to take these experiences and do better next time--to push forward.
My brother Bill has tried to console me. Bill is like a wise sage to me. He was reminding me of the Buddhist principal that all life involves suffering and all life ends in death--that I cannot second-guess life and can only do my best, find my path. I remember a Zen story, where a student and his master are walking down a forest path and the student sees a snail in the middle of the road. Compassionately, the student places the snail on the side of the road to avoid being stepped on, at which time the master slaps the student with his walking stick. The student asks the master why he did that, and the master replied that the student has no knowledge of ultimate consequences; perhaps he has just placed the snail closer to some other animal that will eat the snail. If I understand that story correctly, I believe it is not meant to teach people not to be compassionate, but rather to make the point that when we take actions in the world, even ones we think are good, we don't know the ultimate consequences and should therefore let things be and not try to play God.
But I have a different take on the story. I think the student did the right thing, even if he might have moved the snail closer to and not farther from danger. Who can know? But to me it’s not about the snail, it’s about the student. You are either a person who takes action to try to do good or not. We cannot know whether we succeed ultimately, but we can try. So, I guess if life is about suffering and we are all on our paths, I hope my actions helped there be a little less suffering, and helped prolong life for those animals. And as for me, and what I learned, honestly, I'm just going to need to sit with this for a long, long time. It didn't make sense--it was awful--the world was turned upside down. But there is one thing I can say now that I did learn.
Sometimes you just gotta show up. You can't always do everything, but now and again, you just gotta show up. I have a friend, a big supporter of animal causes, named Craig Neilson. Craig works with a small group that does spay/neuter of street dogs in Mexico, called the Give Some Life Foundation (www.givesomelife.org
). They take vets and other volunteers and do big round-ups of stray pets and spay or neuter them, provide other medical care for them, and, where possible, get them into good homes. I called Craig when I first knew I was going to Louisiana and asked if he would come. He is a pilot and an ex-military man and I knew he had skills that would really help. Craig is one of the finest human beings I know and one of the finest animal people. He said that every day is a Katrina down in Mexico, and I understood him completely. He has invited me many times to go down and help, but I have always been busy, even busy doing other great things for animals with 1-800-Save-A-Pet.com. But when Pia called me from New Orleans, she got me to show up. She was a drop in the ocean, but she created a ripple that led to me and everyone I led to and all we did. She got me to show up. Jane showed up. Dorothy never even left her home, but believe me, night and day for the last seven weeks, she showed up.
So the next time you hear of a need or a crisis, before you think “how sad” and move on with your life, just take a second and consider maybe taking a chance and just showing up. You never know where it might lead. Make a call, send some money, or maybe, just that once, get in your car and go. Just decide now that you are going to reserve a few days of your life this year, and when the right thing crosses your path that moves you, just throw logic aside and just show up. That is how we can change the world.
There is still a great need in New Orleans--a need for people to help round up loose and frightened dogs and cats, a need for money and supplies. And the need for animals, even just dogs and cats goes far beyond that, of course. I helped start 1-800-Save-A-Pet.com to save animals. Before Katrina happened, we were saving pets--thousands--and we still are; over 1,400 shelters and rescue groups depend on us every day, and they adopt tens of thousands of pets with our help because of the visibility we give those poor caged dogs and cats on the internet. We have only one employee, Abbie Moore. She "shows up" every day, and I mean every day--seven days a week and late into the night. We are in a constant struggle for donations, or for companies that want to sponsor us. We also need to spread the word about our free service and get publicity. If you can help, please do.
And my last word on New Orleans, as of course it must be, is the animals. All the dogs and cats and horses and hamsters and birds. All the "pets" and even all the wild animals whose homes were flooded and destroyed, not only in Louisiana, but in Mississippi, Texas and now Florida. This story is about them. I saw something traumatic--but they lived it. Please tonight, say a prayer for all those that died--that drowned, trapped by the rising waters, or that starved because we did not get to them in time. Please say a prayer for the ones we rescued that are still in cages, awaiting a home somewhere. There is no clear ending to this story. A terrible thing happened in New Orleans...Let's not forget, and let's do better next time.