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Riding Out the Storm

When Hurricane Katrina hit at the end of August, horse expert Allan Schwartz was in Florida helping his daughter move. Once he realized the extent of the crisis, he got on the road, stopping at home in Maryland just long enough to grab a nap and hitch his larger horse trailer to his truck before heading south again to meet up with The HSUS Disaster Animal Response Team in Mississippi. 

When Hurricane Katrina hit at the end of August, horse expert Allan Schwartz was in Florida helping his daughter move. Once he realized the extent of the crisis, he got on the road, stopping at home in Maryland just long enough to grab a nap and hitch his larger horse trailer to his truck before heading south again to meet up with The HSUS Disaster Animal Response Team in Mississippi. 

In mid-September, as disaster responders from across the country helped rescue and care for hundreds of cats and dogs in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Allan Schwartz went dancing. His partner was one Miss Asstor, and Schwartz spent a blistering hot Mississippi afternoon whispering sweet nothings in her ear.

© Carrie Allan/HSUS
In a cluttered Gulfport back lot, Allan Schwartz walks with Miss Asstor, a donkey who floated for hours in Katrina's storm surge.

In his cowboy boots and faded jeans, his bandanna and tats and full grizzled beard, Schwartz looked like Santa Claus would if he left the North Pole to work in the sun and join a biker gang. And had Schwartz been dancing with another human, he’d probably have taken the lead. But Miss Asstor was a Sicilian donkey who outweighed him by a good 200 pounds, and Schwartz knew it made sense to follow her around the dance floor.

That dance floor was actually a small back lot in Pass Christian, Mississippi, full of debris—lumber, downed trees, power lines, the contents of the shacks that once stood there. After Katrina hit, the whole area was underwater, and Miss Asstor was floating, probably for hours. When the storm surge receded, she was left in a tiny lot crammed with rubble, in a town cut off from most outside contact. No one could get to her for days.

Wheeling nervously around Schwartz, the soft gray donkey bore the signs of her arduous experience mostly on her legs and fetlocks: They were cut up from objects she’d banged into underwater as she kicked and tried to swim and stay afloat. Flies were buzzing at the seeping wounds, undeterred by the donkey’s flicking tail.

In spite of her injuries, she was still a strong animal, and Schwartz moved with her rather than in front of her, warning the other members of his rescue team to stay away from her back legs. She obviously had a lot of kick left in them, and she was spooked—not just by her recent experiences, but by the National Guardsmen in a sand-colored Humvee who had strung a long metal cable from the vehicle to a downed tree in the lot’s driveway. They were trying to clear the way for Schwartz and Miss Asstor.

“Careful, guys,” Schwartz warned the gathered group. “There’s going to be a noise and she’s not going to like it.”

Down the driveway, the Humvee gunned for power and the tree came down and out with a loud crack. With a hard kick of her hooves, Miss Asstor leaped away from the noise and kicked over the bucket of water the team had proffered earlier. But Schwartz held onto her halter and went with her, calming her down as the noise ceased.

Help From the Blue Devils

Schwartz was working in Mississippi with a team of horse experts, including members of the 88th U.S. Army Reserve’s Blue Devil Horse Platoon. Sergeant 1st class Amy Keele and Corporal Mike Yanz had been on the ground since the wake of the storm. Schwartz himself was in Florida when Katrina hit. He got the call from The HSUS, and drove his small trailer all the way home to Maryland to get his larger trailer from the grounds of the organization he helped run at the time, Days End Farm Horse Rescue. He was back on the road again four hours later, headed to Mississippi to help save equines from dangerous situations in the disaster zone.

In that area of the devastated coast, many horses drowned in the huge storm surge that swept miles inland as Katrina made landfall. But even the ones who made it through weren’t necessarily safe: Some had been injured; many were underweight and dehydrated—a situation that only got worse as the salt-soaked grass and foliage died. Schwartz and the rest of the team were moving animals up to Hattiesburg daily, where each got her own stall and special care from the Veterinary Medical Assistance Team and equine specialist volunteers from around the country.

With the tree out of the way, Schwartz was able to coax Miss Asstor along the cluttered driveway to the trailer. He told one of the Blue Devils to put dirty hay on the back of the trailer. “It’ll smell like horse,” he said. “Make her more comfortable.”

Miss Asstor was persuaded. She got onto the trailer.

Out on the road, Amy Keele thanked the men from the National Guard for their help with the tree. She was glad the Army deployed her in her fatigues, she said. Much as she liked the HSUS t-shirts other volunteers were sporting, she thought her uniform had gotten her more cooperation from the military than she might have gotten otherwise; when she asked for help clearing the driveway from the guardsmen up the way, they headed over in the Humvee right away.

“Now you have a good ass story,” she told one of the guardsmen, who laughed appreciatively and agreed that good ass stories were a nice thing to go home with.

Within minutes, the convoy was on the way to deliver the frightened donkey to her temporary home, a pasture further inland belonging to a friend of the donkey’s owner, where she would get housing and vet care.

“No More Than a Point-Five”

What Next?

Allan Schwartz’s dedication and equine expertise proved so invaluable on-site that it resulted in a job offer. As a new disaster field responder for The HSUS, Schwartz talked to Animal Sheltering about his experiences during Katrina and his hopes for the future of disaster response work; the following is an excerpt of that conversation.

So what will you be doing in your new role? When we’re not actually responding, what I think we’re going to work on setting up is training classes and things like that. And that’s sort of my dream and goal and vision is to be able to get a lot of the training out there, to come up with some courses that show you how to do disaster response, so that there is a coordinated effort.

That was a problem on-site. Part of the lessons learned out of Katrina and Rita was that there were a whole lot of very well-meaning people that showed up who not only had very little training but weren’t prepared for the tasks at hand and didn’t have any shots or knowledge of how the system worked. The infrastructure was totally overwhelmed and now you have 10,000 volunteers—well-meaning people, but … they’re going to need fuel, they’re going to need water, they’re going to need food, they’re going to need a place to stay. So we hope to get the word out that we’d love volunteers, but you need to be properly trained; you need to have the proper shots for your own personal safety.

Sometimes the thing that’s most needed isn’t what people want to contribute—like the people who only wanted to do rescue and didn’t want to help clean up the poop back at the holding sites. That’s something that I ran into. You can’t just stick anybody in the trailer, because it’s got that filth, so you need people who have [been vaccinated against] Hep A and Hep B. Well, everybody’s like, I don’t want to do that, that’s not my job. Well, I’m a field service person, but you know what, [there was one person] in there by himself cleaning this trailer. So I went over to help. You just kind of look at that as being part of your job.

Everyone has to do what needs to be done rather than just the sexy work. Let’s say you were fortunate enough to bring all the animals in jeopardy out. That’s wonderful. But if you don’t have people to clean up the cages, feed them, water them, then what good is it? You haven’t helped anything; you’ve maybe even put them in worse situations. People think it’s glorious going in and doing this rescue work, but the glory is doing the muck work and taking care of the animals and being the absolute true unsung heroes of it. I don’t mean to minimize the achievement, but if you want to know where the real glory is, maybe it is in the people who stay behind 14 hours a day cleaning manure and urine out of the cages and making sure that these dogs have their quality time. Without them, those of us in the field would be useless. Those people are every bit as important as us, if not more important, in my opinion. Those are the backbone of the disaster response, the people who stay behind and do the muck work.

What part of the experience really stuck with you? The spirit of the people was just amazing. These people had just lost everything they owned. They had nothing left. And yet Meredith [another disaster responder] and her group ran into a guy in New Orleans. This guy had lost everything. And he was getting a FEMA check, and what he wanted to do with the check was go to the grocery store and buy a bunch of food and do a cookout barbecue for all the volunteers who were down there helping recover. It’s like he felt he had to do something for them, and he had nothing, but he wanted to share what little he had with everybody else. So … that was just kind of cool. And we saw that time and time again.

In Mississippi, most of the horses rescued after the storm were pulled out at their owner’s request. Many people lost their homes or were unable to return, and so their surviving horses were trapped on properties plagued with hazards, from sewage and chemical contamination to live power lines to broken fencing to the debris that had cut up Miss Asstor’s legs.

After delivering the donkey, the team headed to the next rescue, out through unmarked roads, past crushed white picket fences and mangled gas stations and over bayous that reeked of upturned algae and rot. By the side of the road near a Red Cross food distribution center, an enterprising sort was already selling “I Survived Hurricane Katrina” t-shirts. A huge piece of plywood in front of a smashed-up store had been spray painted with the message “LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT.” It wasn’t the friendliest welcome, but at least the writer had added pupils to the Os in “LOOTERS,” giving the word a cheerful set of cartoon eyeballs.

The next two horses were scheduled to go all the way to the site at Hattiesburg for care and housing. But when Schwartz and the team arrived, the lot was fenced off and locked, and even when a neighbor came to unlock the gate, the property was such a tangle of bracken and bushes and fallen trees that the team couldn’t even tell where the horses were.

They worked their way across the property, moving between ramshackle buildings and stepping carefully through high brush. Mosquitoes found them immediately and welts started to appear on exposed flesh. They finally found the horses behind a low-lying, beat up shack, and the first responder to see them let out a gasp. The others pressed past the gate and into the tiny lot, where greenish rainwater had collected in two old bathtubs and where two horses huddled close to each other, eyeing the group nervously.

One, a chestnut gelding, was in good flesh and seemed energetic. The other was another story entirely. Horse folks rank the weight of horses on what’s known as the Henneke scale. A horse who’s a ten is morbidly obese; a horse who’s a one is emaciated. Ruth Henthorn, part of the Blue Devils squad, grimly estimated that this old palomino mare was no more than a point-five.

Reading Their Signs

The palomino moved slowly. Every rib was visible and her hip bones jutted out horribly. But while most of the group agreed that there was probably a neglect issue, they also pointed out that the old girl was over 35 and might have been ill. Cancer or Cushing’s disease could cause this kind of emaciation.

Henthorn, who said she’s partial to mares, wasn’t convinced. Her anger at the mare’s condition was as palpable as her concern for the animal. She leaned against one of the bathtubs and talked softly to the horse, and soon the animal was lapping at her hand for the salt that had gathered in its creases.

Schwartz had been told that these animals had never been handled; the gelding was supposedly born right there in the lot. Getting them onto the trailer wasn’t going to be easy. Miss Asstor was a small donkey; this big fellow outweighed her by many hundreds of pounds and a lot of feisty attitude.

But while the mare was in terrible shape, she at least seemed friendly. Her partner, on the other hand, stamped around the tiny lot, making lunges at the team members before dashing past them. Whenever a responder got close to the mare, he reacted by snorting and trotting closer. He seemed very protective of the other horse, and as the team observed the bone structure of the two animals’ faces, they concluded that the younger horse was probably the mare’s son.

© Carrie Allan/HSUS
Initially persuaded to follow his mother onto the trailer, this feisty gelding changed his mind at the last minute. It took more coaxing to get him on board.

Watching their behavior, Schwartz formed his plan: He instructed Henthorn to lead the mare onto the trailer.

“Once she’s on, I think he’ll follow her,” he said. “Just guide her in and let her do the work on the other. We could form a rope barrier, but I kind of think anything we do might excite her, so let’s try this first.”

Henthorn spoke gently to the mare as she led her out of the lot towards the trailer. The gelding started to follow. It seemed like the plan was working—but as the mare stepped onto the trailer, the sound of her hooves hitting the metal spooked the younger horse and he plunged back across the lawn, nearly trampling a few team members in his way.

Back in the smaller lot, he wheeled about in circles, snorting and nickering, obviously displeased. Keele and one of the other Blue Devils headed back into the lot, and with some strategic herding, they got the gelding moving again. This time, he came straight onto the trailer, right at Henthorn and the mare. His own hooves on the metal made a loud noise, and he started kicking violently—Henthorn had to leap out the side door of the trailer to get away. The other responders slammed the back door shut.

With the door shut, the younger horse settled down. Schwartz was pleased with the results. “I love it when a plan comes together,” he said with a grin.

The Lucky Ones

Back in Hattiesburg, Schwartz said the horses of the coast had some hard times ahead. He expected that many of the animals would be coming in dehydrated and skinny—much of the pastureland near the coast had been destroyed. Some of the animals would suffer skin conditions and neurological damage due to salt and other contaminants in the water they’d been standing in or drinking.

John Roberson and Tamara Aldridge, two volunteers from Manatee County, Florida, who were helping take care of the equines in the Hattiesburg shelter, said many of the horses in the stables were suffering from depression, standing silently with their heads down all day. They were making sure the animals got time out of their stalls regularly, but they said that soon the animals would start showing their trauma in their hooves.

“A good farrier can look at the hooves and tell you that six months ago, something stressful happened to this horse,” said Aldridge, noting that the marks in horses’ hooves are like rings in a tree. But the horses who’d come to Hattiesburg were by and large lucky animals indeed, said John Thompson, a volunteer from Vero Beach who was helping in the stables, feeding, walking, and caring for the horses. Most of the horses onsite were getting the best veterinary care they’d ever had.

“I’m really proud of what we’re doing here and the care these horses are getting,” he said. “You can see the effects already of better food and grooming. The horses we’ve brought in, the ones who’ve been here for a week, their coats are already better. They’re starting to glisten.”

After a quick trip back to Maryland, Schwartz headed down south again to help out in Lake Charles, Louisiana, for another few weeks. He has since cut his hair, trimmed his beard, and accepted a job as a field responder with The HSUS’s Disaster Services department.


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