WE DID IT! The last remaining pets have been moved out of Gonzales!
Posted by David Meyer
WE DID IT! The last remaining pets have been moved out of Gonzales!
It all began with a concerned call from Pia, who said that the pets remaining in Gonzales, which were almost all pit bulls, might be hastily judged to be vicious and would then be euthanized in the mad rush to vacate the Lamar Dixon facility. This is a very delicate subject. Of course, HSUS itself would not condone euthanizing pets as a means to empty the Lamar Dixon facility, but there were many other agencies involved, including the public health service, the Army, etc., who might have other pressing concerns besides the welfare of these animals. People on the ground with whom I spoke definitely felt that no meaningful decision could be made about the temperament of these dogs under the stressful conditions at Lamar. It was a fact that euthanizations had begun on the pets that were not yet claimed by owners or spoken for by other rescue groups. Whatever was really going on and whoever knew it, it was clear to me and Pia that all the pets needed to be evacuated and held for true temperament testing under less stressful conditions, and it was also clear the Army was serious that all pets needed to be out of Lamar Dixon by Monday morning, nearly a week before the deadline of the 15th that we’d been given previously.
So, Pia tagged every dog and cat there as a 1-800-Save-A-Pet.com pet, which meant that we were committing to taking them into our organization. We are just a website. No office. No shelter. No kennels. One employee (Abbie Moore) who runs everything. But Pia was concerned, Abbie and I agreed, and the decision was made. All of these pets who had survived Hurricane Katrina, the flood of New Orleans, Hurricane Rita, starvation, toxic chemicals and all the rest, would be given all the time they need to be evaluated properly, and given a chance at life, and hopefully, to be reunited with their owners.
HSUS was very supportive and happy to have our help moving them out. I told HSUS that I hoped they’d be able to get other shelters and humane societies to take some of these pets before the next day, but I guaranteed we would take however many were left. The only problem was that I had no idea what to do. It was time for a miracle.
So, on Saturday night of a holiday weekend, I started making calls to find trucks or a plane or anything that could move 150 animals. The other obvious question was where to move them to! All I can tell you is that the phone was not off my head for 48 hours straight, and all this was in addition to the work I was doing to continue running the search and rescue teams. Bobby of New Leash on Life, a great rescue organization in Los Angeles, really came through, saying he would have his organization waiting on the ground in Los Angeles if I could get the pets there. He put me in touch with Tia of Villalobos Rescue Center, a fantastic pit bull rescue just north of L.A., who said she could house the pit bulls, but it would be very expensive and would require building new facilities and hiring new staff, as these pit bulls, if not claimed by their families, would likely be with her for a very long time.
I put the word out to everyone I knew about getting an airplane. How would this be possible on such short notice, and how could we ever afford it? My great friend Dr. Paula Kislak said she would donate a great deal of money to help us, if need be. Paula herself had just been in New Orleans for about 10 days, going into houses and rescuing pets alongside me. She is amazing. And then I got a call.
A guy named Bill called me and said if I could get the pets to the airport on Monday morning, there would be a plane there to take them. I had never met Bill. He had never met me. It was, I think, late Saturday. It would cost over $50,000 and he would have to trust me that I would pay it. Everything was done by the seat of our pants, and by Sunday morning it all seemed to break down logistically, with everyone stressed out and no time to do things right. HSUS had thought it better to ship the animals by ground, so I concentrated on that option. I began arranging for a convoy of HSUS trucks to drive the animals across country to Los Angeles, which, although worse for the animals then a plane flight, would at least buy us more time to arrange where the heck the pets would go when they got to L.A.
Then, on Sunday, the folks at HSUS told me they thought the plane flight would be better for the health of the animals and HSUS would cover the huge cost of transportation. And then came the call from Bill. The plane was still available! He said not to worry about where the animals would go when they reached L.A., just get every single space on that plane filled with a pet in need and we'd sort it out. I agreed and I liked his can-do attitude. Bill is a tough cookie, but he's a guy I can work with.
So, with Pia tagging animals, HSUS processing them at Gonzales and covering the transport and some start-up housing costs for the pit bulls, Paula covering some more housing costs and getting rescue groups to agree to foster some pets, Bobby getting his volunteers ready to receive animals at LAX airport and house them, Tia frantically making space at her pit bull sanctuary which already houses 150 needy pit bulls, and HSUS 18-wheelers called into position, a 5AM in-the-dark procession of these forlorn pit bulls began marching, one by one (assisted by scores of volunteers, of course), into transport crates. Then the Army loaded them onto trucks, and off they went to the airport. I have never seen such an amazing site.
One big rig was loaded with 27 pit bulls that Francis at Best Friends in Mississippi had agreed to take. Another big rig went with crates and volunteers to pick up other dogs and cats from the Dixon Correctional Facility, where an overflow of pets from Gonzales had been being held. A third left Gonzales, with me and volunteers following close behind. The mantra we kept repeating that morning was "Leave no pet behind, leave no pet behind".
Ours was the first big rig to arrive at the airport. The plane was not there yet and we checked that the refrigeration in the truck was working properly and that all the animals were safe. It was amazing to see an entire big rig filled with rows of dogs in carrier crates.
Then, out of the sky, a DC9 landed. That guy Bill, whom I’d never met or heard of until 24 hours before, came through. A DC9 cargo plane, with no seats but those in the cockpit, pulled up, and we began using a forklift to load pets from the high tailgate of the big rig into the cargo hull of this huge jet.
Then the second big rig arrived, and for a moment it seemed that we wouldn’t have enough room. We would need smaller crates and had none. We continued to load the pets. It was all so noisy with the big rigs running, all the sounds of jet engines, all the dogs going nuts-we kept the cats separate to keep them from getting scared. We had exactly 80 dogs and 20 cats. We loaded them, stacked to the ceiling and by another miracle, they all fit into that plane. The last pets to leave Gonzales, the unwanted ones. But they were wanted. They were wanted by Pia. They were wanted by me, by Abbie, by Bobby and Tia and every volunteer who had broken down doors to rescue these pets from flooded homes.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when that plane closed its doors and fired up its engines. A DC9 filled to the top with 100 animals, the survivors, the homeless, the emaciated, the lost, the scared. I've heard engines fire up a million times-- to take travelers to do business, to take people on vacations, but the deafening noise of those jet engines, as we stood there so close on the tarmac, was a sound like none I had heard before. I called Abbie at the office on my cell, knowing she would never be able to hear my voice and just shouted at her that the plane was going to leave-I wanted her to hear what a jet loaded with 100 pets sounded like. It was the best sound I had ever heard. I and Pia and so many others had pulled those dogs and cats from the wreckage of homes, pulled them from under houses, pulled them from locked bathrooms, and now they were going to people who would care for them. And now, for once, the power of humans, the awesome power of a jet engine, was going to be used for something good. Tears were in all of our eyes, and one of the volunteers told me it was the high point of her life. There were television cameras there, but I had no time for an interview, I was already on the phone making sure each pet had a place to go and would be tracked so their owner could find them. Eye on the ball--save pets' lives.
The plane turned around, got on the runway and launched itself into the sky, bolting towards the horizon with its cargo of dogs and cats, one pilot, one co-pilot, and one little powerhouse of a woman who, just one day before, had made the call to me that got it all started…Pia Salk.
You know, millions of homeless pets die in shelters each year. Let it be known right here, right now, that anyone who calls those pets "unwanted" is mistaken. They may be homeless, but they are not unwanted. I want them all, and if we could, Pia would tag each cage and I would arrange for a thousand jets to fly them all to safety. If only it could happen that way, but for those 100, it did happen that way. Paula called me yesterday: every one, every single one is safe and accounted for. Everybody came through and the miracle happened. And by the way, Tia from Villalobos Rescue says that none of the pit bulls, not one of them, is aggressive…they’re all lovers. Not a single one will be euthanized. We left none behind.
Pictures have been posted in the photo album--click the link on the right side of the page