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Helping Pets & People

Some Katrina victims smuggled their animals to Texas, where the Houston SPCA helped them hold on to their best friends.

Some Katrina victims smuggled their animals to Texas, where the Houston SPCA helped them hold on to their best friends.

Dohnn Moret Williams and his spaniel, Sebastian Moret, were reunited at the Houston SPCA in early September. Moret got some dog food for his baby—and a big hug from Sandy Fox of the SPCA.
CARRIE ALLAN/HSUS
When Dohnn Moret Williams arrived at the Houston SPCA on September 4, he had no plans to return to New Orleans. There was nothing there for him anymore, he explained. His former home was underwater, and he presumed all his possessions had been ruined by the flood or stolen by looters. His elderly father lived nearby, and while Moret Williams was hoping for the best, he was fearing the worst. “We think he’s dead,” he said. His voice was tired and dreadfully blank.

Given all that had happened to him over the past week—the loss of home, friends, and probably family; the frightening journey out of New Orleans and into the chaotic environs of the Houston Astrodome—it might have seemed strange that, standing outside the animal shelter, Moret Williams was crying tears of relief and happiness.

“I spent most of the morning crying when I knew I could come get him,” he said, gazing down at the dog at his feet. He had just reclaimed Sebastian, a large black cocker spaniel with red markings above his brown eyes, from his “hotel” at the Houston SPCA. “Sebastian Moret,” Moret Williams specified, emphasizing the dog’s second name, the one that defined the animal as part of his family. “I got no children. This here’s my baby.”

As much as Moret Williams and Sebastian had been through, the past few months have shown the pair to be among the luckiest: The man and his dog left New Orleans together. Sebastian floated on an air mattress at his owner’s side as Moret Williams waded through polluted, neck-deep floodwaters pulling the mattress along with him. Man and beast managed to reach an elevated portion of Interstate 10, but the helicopters that were taking evacuees to buses weren’t allowing pets on board.

“There was no way I was leaving without him,” Moret Williams said, and so he did what so many storm victims tried to do for their animals: he improvised. He put Sebastian in a large black trash bag and begged him not to make any noise.

Amazingly, the dog obeyed, though he did squirm at one point—a point that could have ruined the whole plan. “He bumped against the pilot,” Moret Williams said, a small smile creeping onto his face. “The pilot just goes, ‘I didn’t see nothing.’ ”

The pet owner’s black bag operation was stealthy enough to get the pair a one-way ticket to Houston on an evacuation bus that also didn’t really accept animals. Sebastian made the whole trip with his nose sticking out the top of the bag for air. And when they arrived at the Astrodome on September 2, the staff of the Houston SPCA were already waiting, ready to offer a temporary home to Sebastian while Moret Williams figured out how to scratch out a new life. Two days later, he had plans to stay with his sister—and thanks to the SPCA, he already had his baby back.

Many other evacuees have similar stories. Not only did the Houston SPCA take in nearly 300 animals from the Louisiana SPCA prior to the storm, it sheltered another 600 who arrived at the Astrodome and the George R. Brown Convention Center with their exhausted owners.

Moret Williams was not alone in the extraordinary measures he took to keep his beloved pet safe. In the first few days of September, the Houston SPCA was already full of pets of evacuees, and Jim Boller, director of shelter and field services for the shelter, estimated that only half a dozen out of hundreds actually came “legally,” properly leashed or in crates. While a few of the bus drivers relented on the “no pets” rule—the adult great Dane being held at the shelter “probably drove the bus,” joked Houston SPCA volunteer Steve Rundell—the majority of the animals who arrived with the victims were stowaways, brought out of the city by hook or by crook with owners unwilling to leave them behind. The two ferrets at the shelter had arrived in the oversized pockets of a young girl. A parakeet had been concealed in a makeup case. Chihuahuas and kittens made it out of the disaster zone in women’s purses.

Then there was Lola. In the first days after the storm, Boller had been helping with pet intake at the Astrodome in the middle of the night when the lovebird arrived. The young woman who brought her obviously hadn’t slept for days, and she mentioned having come from the Superdome. All she had with her was her little boy, a small plastic bag of personal items, and Lola—although the bird was not immediately apparent to Boller’s eyes. The woman told him, “I’ve got something for you,” and then pressed her breasts together slightly and rolled her shoulders in a way that might have seemed suggestive had she not been so obviously exhausted. Lola the lovebird popped up out of her cleavage, having spent most of the bus trip tucked inside her owner’s bra.

Even in those first few days, the SPCA had already helped 30 animals at the shelter reunite with their families. The reunited pets weren’t just dogs and cats and parakeets. One of the earliest animals to be claimed was a chicken who’d been raised “from a peep” by the man who came to take her home.

“This chicken obviously knew the guy,” Boller said, noting that many of the folks coming off the buses at the Astrodome had been reluctant to let the SPCA take the animals away, even temporarily. “These animals are all that some of these people have left.”

In the face of such crisis, it’s easy to understand why many people chose to focus on the human side of this tragedy. Thousands of people were suddenly homeless and unemployed. Thousands lost loved ones. Whole towns were wiped off the map; rebuilding will take years in the areas where it’s even possible.

But Dohnn Moret Williams and his dog Sebastian, Lola the bosom-smuggled lovebird, and the hundreds of other animals carried out of New Orleans are a reminder of how much people love their pets, how much they will do to protect them, and what a great comfort animals can provide in the face of trauma. Animals were victims of this disaster as well, but the Houston SPCA and the rest of the rescuers, veterinarians, onsite volunteers, and reunion workers who came together to address the needs of the animals affected by Katrina were not just helping animals. They were helping people—many of whom suddenly had nothing—go on with their lives with a friend at their side.

 

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