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The Power of Compassion

They were ordinary people doing extraordinary things—and many disaster victims are better off because of their generosity

They were ordinary people doing extraordinary things—and many disaster victims are better off because of their generosity

Last August, Melissa Smith was an exengineer preparing to embark on a new career path. Enrolled at Texas Tech, she was taking the prerequisites that would eventually pave her way to medical school.

Animal-loving truck drivers, real estate agents, pre-med students, flight attendants, boarding kennel owners

They dropped out of school to care for exhausted animals, missed work and risked their jobs to drive supplies into the disaster zone, spent their own money to fly pets back to their owners, and curbed regular operations at their businesses to assist human and animal disaster victims.

Their work saved the lives of critically ill animals, enabled multi-species families to stay together, and reunited those who’d been torn apart.

Then Mother Nature swept in and knocked her off-course. Disasters always alter the direction of people’s lives, but most often it’s the lives of their victims. Hurricane Katrina was hauntingly different, its brute force and magnitude tearing through the national conscience in a way no other storm ever had. And for people like Smith, there was no time to think, no point in pondering the effect of their decisions on their own lives. The only right thing to do was get up and go.

“I told my husband, ‘I feel like I can either be useful in about eight years when I get through all my schooling, or I can be useful to animals right now,’ ” Smith says.

Smith is not a vet tech or a shelter worker—“ just a person,” she says, who in the past had volunteered to do wildlife rescue and had trapped stray cats for neutering and vaccinations. But after the levees gave way, watching the images on TV and thinking of all the animals trapped in flooded buildings was more than she could take sitting down. “It ate at me the whole weekend,” she says.

Smith quickly rearranged her life, withdrawing from school and applying online to work on-site in the Gulf Coast as a volunteer. When Louisiana State University responded to her offer, she got in her car and drove from Ransom Canyon, Texas, to Baton Rouge, where she helped care for pets of evacuees at the Parker Coliseum and caught a few moments of sleep in her car. Then, at the end of her first week, Smith received an e-mail from The HSUS requesting that she report to the emergency shelter set up at the Lamar- Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, Louisiana.

At one time, crates and carriers like the ones above were too scarce a commodity at Lamar- Dixon—until volunteers cleaned out their local PetSmarts and Petcos and drove hundreds of miles to deliver more.
To help both facilities, Smith decided to split her time between LSU and Lamar-Dixon, working the graveyard shifts because, she says, there were never enough people to care for the animals during the wee hours. LSU eventually had enough volunteers, so Smith moved her base of operations full-time to Lamar-Dixon. And just as she had chosen the shift few others wanted to fill, she also chose the animals most in need of her attention: the scaredycats.

“I felt really sorry for the aggressives and ferals because no one wanted to deal with them,” she says. “Most of them really were not feral—they were just in a bad situation, and they were freaking out. I’ve got cats that are sweet as can be, but you put them in a similar situation and they’ll take your arm off.”

One evening, Smith turned her attention to a sick kitten who’d been rescued from a public housing complex with the help of 82nd Airborne. The baby cat was emaciated, and her temperature had dropped to 97 degrees. While waiting for the morning vets to arrive, Smith wrapped the kitten in a blanket and towel and fed her an electrolyte mix in a quiet area of the shelter until she fell asleep. “She purred the whole time,” says Smith.

By morning, the cat’s temperature had risen above 99 degrees, and the vets began to give her subcutaneous fluids. Later taken in by North Shore Animal League in New York, the kitten was adopted after the original owner could not be found. In the process of saving the cat’s life—and the lives of many others she went on to help rescue when she switched to field work in Chalmette— Smith changed her own life for good. No longer so intent on becoming a doctor, Smith has a new goal: to become a member of The HSUS’s National Disaster Animal Response Team.

“I would love to do this on a regular basis,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that events like this do happen, but I’ll do anything to rescue an animal.”

Smith was just one of thousands who reported for duty in the disaster zone. In the early days of September alone, HSUS staff and volunteers received tens of thousands of calls, many of them from people who, like Smith, were ready to jump into their vehicles and head into the chaos at a moment’s notice.

Some were shelter workers who’d already secured permission from their supervisors, like the kennel caretaker from Maryland intent on spending all of her vacation time helping disaster victims. Some were animal control officers, like the chief officer from a Michigan agency who’d already packed a semi full of cages and exotic animal-handling equipment when he phoned to ask where he and a fellow officer could show up and hang their hats in the Gulf Coast.

All were compassionate souls who were often extraordinarily grateful for the chance just to help, as Kathryn Bice of the Humane Society SPCA of Bexar County in Texas points out. At her shelter, which housed more than 1,500 animals from evacuees and evacuating agencies, no job was too thankless for volunteers. “When I walked in the back at 4 in the morning, I’d have somebody thank me for letting them do the laundry,” says Bice. “Or they thanked me for letting them do the dishes to help the animals.”

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Motivating so many of them was an emotional hollowness brought on by flat picture-tube images that showed animals and people struggling for survival in neck-deep water and on crumbling rooftops—but delivered little sign of hope for their rescue. For real estate agents Laurie and Russell Peak in Lawrence, Kansas, the feelings of helplessness mounted quickly. “Russell was saying, ‘Heck, I can go out and buy some used gas boat and get down there. We’ve got to do something!’ ” recalls Laurie.

This kitten helped change Melissa Smith’s life while she was saving his at Lamar-Dixon.
Russell’s call to action was fortuitous. Around the same time that the Peaks had begun wondering how they could help, the director of the local shelter where Laurie sometimes volunteers received a call from Animal Sheltering’s advertising manager, ReNae Vorgert. From her home office in North Dakota, Vorgert was trying to fulfill an urgent request for more cages at Lamar-Dixon and called Midge Grinstead of the Lawrence Humane Society for help. Though she had secured a source for the cages, she explained to Grinstead, she’d been less successful in her search for truckers to deliver the cage load. It was Saturday morning, and most available truckers in the country were either already in the disaster zone or on their way down.

Grinstead picked up the ball and in turn called the Peaks to explain the situation.

“They were saving the animals, but they had nothing to put them in,” says Laurie Peak. “And actually it was a call that really seemed heaven-sent because we had both been distressed about the animals and were really looking for a way to help.”

Unbeknownst to Grinstead, whose greatest hope in making the call was to tap into the Peaks’ community connections, Russell Peak had a one-ton Dodge diesel truck as well as access to a trailer.

“Fortunately, of course, being in real estate, we’re in a position where we can drop everything and go,” says Laurie.

The Peaks sprang into action. Acting on a tip from Vorgert regarding the willingness of pet supply stores to donate more equipment, Peak called local PetSmart and Petco stores to see what they could offer.

“I’m kind of a logistics person anyway—I used to be a troubleshooter for Sprint,” says Laurie. “So I called around and arranged for the stores to have the cages, and then I arranged for friends and family to go pick up and load the cages. As a matter of fact, the last batch of cages, they picked up at like 10 or 11 at night. The manager of one of the PetSmarts had stayed and was giving them another 60 cages.”

Meanwhile, Russell worked his own contacts. One of them was Eric Green, a garbage truck driver and mechanic who’d become Russell’s pal through their mutual love of race cars. Green not only allowed Russell to borrow his father-in-law’s trailer but also offered to make the journey with Russell and the Grinsteads. The caravan grew to four vehicles when two teenagers employed by a local feed store loaded the last remaining cages into their old truck.

The efficiency of the crew was impressive, says Vorgert: “I got this request [for supplies] at 10 o’clock in the morning, and by 9 o’clock that night, the Lawrence Humane Society was leaving Kansas City with four trucks of cages.”

Dedication to helping the animals was not without consequences for some people who left everything behind. Though he tried to get back in time to drive his garbage truck route, Green didn’t make it—and got written up by his supervisors for missing a day, says Laurie Peak. As for Russell Peak, the journey to New Orleans wouldn’t be his last: When Grinstead called again to say two older members of a pet rescue group were headed to LSU to help out for two weeks, Russell loaded the trailer with the new volunteers’ supplies and led them down.

“It’s so easy to feel helpless—like there’s nothing you can do,” says Laurie Peak. “But the truth of the matter is if you just get up and look around, there usually is something you can do.”

Taking Flight and Hunkering Down

Even those who stayed at home glued to their computers often ended up in the thick of the disaster as well. Eager to help anyone who needed her, Celene Albano of Miami Beach, Florida, spent many sleepless nights last summer and fall logging information into rescue databases, circulating lists of needed supplies, helping families find their pets, assisting fostering agencies in their search for owners of animals in their care, and developing a network of flight attendants willing to fly animals around the country.

Flight attendant Ellen Taylor (above) worked with Celene Albano of Hurricane Pets to reunite this cat with an owner in Georgia. COURTESY HUMANE SOCIETY OF SOUTH MISSISSIPPI
On medical leave from her own job as a flight attendant with American Airlines, Albano began her organization, Hurricane Pets, as simply a Yahoo forum for rescue groups. Over the ensuing months, however, it became an all-things-to-all-people sort of endeavor. And by February, Albano was already working on plans for the next disaster, even while continuing to assist the Gulf Coast victims.

“It’s just basically nonstop for me,” she says, her voice relaying both spirited dedication and a now-seasoned weariness. “Not to mention I have my own fosters and my own strays in Miami.”

Albano’s main project—recruiting coworkers to assist with reunion efforts—received support from friends in high places.

“I sent a message to my supervisor saying, ‘Listen, we need help … ’ ” she says. “So my supervisor and another supervisor who is an animal lover sent a message out to all the flight attendants.”

Of the 100 who signed up, some were responsible for reunions that may not have been possible without their help. In one case in Mississippi, a member of Albano’s network took time off and used one of her employee flight passes to reunite a lost cat—who’d been found by a family living in a FEMA trailer in Biloxi—with the cat’s original owner, who had relocated to Georgia.

Flight attendant Ellen Taylor took time off and used her own money to finance the non-flight portion of the trip. “She went out of her way,” says Albano. “She got up early in the morning and spent the night to do the reunion.”

Some animal lovers in other arenas went out of their way just to stay put, risking their own safety in the face of torrential winds and rain. When she heard that Hurricane Rita was being upgraded to a major storm, JoAnn Ellis reversed direction, got back on a plane, and flew all the way back home to Texas—just hours after she’d landed in California on a trip.

As the owner of a boarding facility called Fondren 5 Star Kennels in Houston, Ellis had already been inundated with animals of Katrina evacuees after the levees collapsed. Within two weeks of Katrina’s landfall, Fondren had accepted at least 45 animals from Louisiana and Mississippi evacuees, waiving the vaccination requirements; discounting her boarding fees by 60 percent for short-term stays and 70 percent for long-term stays; and providing free stays for animals of people too destitute to pay anything at all.

And when the city that had served as a refuge for Louisiana and Mississippi evacuees turned into an evacuation site itself, Ellis provided emergency boarding to 60 more pets of people who were fleeing Houston—all pets who otherwise would have been left behind by their owners to fend for themselves.

“We just couldn’t turn them away,” she says. “As we kept taking dogs in, we knew that we would not be able to evacuate. It was a choice we had to decide—whether to go or stay and just make the best of it.”

After warning pet owners that she would try but could not guarantee the safety of their animals, Ellis got a crew to help board up all the windows and then hunkered down with the dogs, cats, and four other managers to ride out the storm.

Though Fondren’s two transformers blew and the building lost power for a couple of very uncomfortable days, Rita spared Houston. It devastated Beaumont, however, so Fondren took in about 20 more hurricane evacuees.

By February, a few hurricane animals were still at Fondren, including one rottie/shepherd mix who’d ended up in an Austin shelter after being airlifted out of New Orleans during Katrina. A family member located the dog while the owner was working in California. Now back in the New Orleans area, the owner is waiting until the dog finishes her heartworm treatment to retrieve her.

“When it all started happening, we just said, ‘We need to step up and help,’ and it was as much for the animals as for the people,” says Ellis, who is also a longtime volunteer at local shelters. “And truly, 95 percent of the people we dealt with were very appreciative; we have gotten wonderful thank-you notes. And I would hope that somebody would do that for us if we had a problem.”

Fondren is now on the Houston SPCA’s list of emergency contacts, says Ellis, who is also working with another kennel to put together a disaster preparedness plan. “We’ve learned a lot,” she says, “and have done a lot since.”


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