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The Shelter that Once Was

When the Louisiana SPCA’s shelter on Japonica Street lay in ruins—and the storm had eroded its staff to one-sixth its original size—executive director Laura Maloney and her colleagues pressed on. In this essay written last fall for

When the Louisiana SPCA’s shelter on Japonica Street lay in ruins—and the storm had eroded its staff to one-sixth its original size—executive director Laura Maloney and her colleagues pressed on. In this essay written last fall for Urban Dog Magazine, Maloney described her organization’s efforts to pick up the pieces of her shattered city.

© Chad Sisneros/HSUS

October 2005—On a recent Thursday afternoon, I called a staff meeting as I’ve so often done. It’s a time to share updates as well as give staff an opportunity to ask any questions they might have.

But on this late afternoon we were not cramped tightly in our small back office on Japonica Street. We weren’t shooing away flies that had become permanent fixtures in our well-worn building. I didn’t look out at a gathering of 60 or more faces of vet techs, adoption counselors, animal care attendants, animal control officers, and other office staff. The ever present sound of 400-plus dogs and cats didn’t bounce off the walls.

We were sitting under a tree in Algiers, gathered around a makeshift picnic table, my staff and I, all 10 of us. The staff of 65 diverse and wonderful folks I loved seeing at work every day has diminished greatly in size. There is no clinic waiting room filled to capacity with the couple from Mid-City, the student from Tulane, or the elderly woman from the 9th ward. There is no cluster of volunteer Care Cadets walking dogs in the courtyard. There is no Japonica Street.

Read an April 2006 update on the progress made by the LA/SPCA.

Read the Dispatches from many animal welfare professionals and volunteers who traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

What there is is an incredible sadness that fills me daily for the animals of New Orleans. The rottweiler, the pit bull, the German shepherd mix that died in flood waters after being left tethered to a fence or a porch or a balcony. The animals whose owners did not have the means to evacuate and who were left behind as their caretakers were rescued from the roofs of homes overcome with waters from breached levees. The dogs whose top coat peeled away as easily as a banana skin after days of swimming in pools of contaminated waters, slick with oil, silt, and salt from Lake Pontchartrain. When I think of the animals, I’m filled with an incredible sense of loss, sadness, and even anger. Katrina brought our pet overpopulation problem national attention and exposed the high level of neglect and lack of care for a large portion of New Orleans’ furred friends.

Rewind to September. It was approaching midnight at the temporary shelter we’d established at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, Louisiana. I’d lost count of how many phone calls I hadn’t returned. Cell phones had become as critical as water, and at one point I juggled three, and later only two, having lost one somewhere between my almost daily trips from Gonzales to New Orleans and back again. On this particular night, we had over 1,200 animals in the shelter. We could not humanely house any more. But just outside the entrance gates of Lamar, carloads and caravans of animal rescuers were waiting at the gates with 750 animals who had been rescued from New Orleans. There were many eager rescuers, but fewer willing to stay behind and care for those being sheltered. There was a mixture of chaos, frustration, and battling philosophies among the varying groups and individual rescuers. It wouldn’t be the last time.

© LA/SPCA

It was after 2 a.m. when my assistant, Gloria Dauphin, and I left Lamar and drove the 10 miles to my father’s home just outside Baton Rouge, where 15 of us were bunked because there were no available hotel rooms or apartments. I walked around a maze of sleeping bags and air mattresses. I opened one bedroom door where I observed our chief humane officer, Kathryn Destreza, in a half-sitting, half-reclining position, still in her uniform but asleep. I looked for an extra blanket for Gloria and pointed her to the only remaining free space in the house: a small love seat, normally the dog’s couch. I crashed in my little brother’s empty bedroom with Glen, one of our officers, whose air mattress was on the floor. We had to be up again in three hours.

Many nights I fell asleep dog-tired, missing my home and my daily rituals; missing my husband, Dan, who was hunkered down himself, caring for animals at Audubon Zoo; missing our four dogs. More than six weeks would pass before I would finally be able to bring home two of our dogs from Houston. Thankfully, Houston Zoo friends cared for them since we were working such long hours. Weeks would pass before I would finally sleep in my own bed, but I often remind myself how fortunate I am to not have lost everything.

Our animal control officers and animal care attendants are operating on little or no sleep. One of our senior attendants, George, has lost his home in the 9th ward. George is like a machine. He just doesn’t stop. A large percentage of our staff has lost everything, yet they have continued to go back into the city, rescuing and saving animals’ lives.

I worry for them because not only have they endured personal losses, they have also witnessed horrific scenes that will last with them forever. They’ve seen emaciated animals too weak to stand. They’ve seen half-eaten carcasses and animals drowned in high waters, their bodies still tied to the fence where they were left. They’ve encountered once friendly dogs gone feral from wandering the streets, suffering from extreme thirst and starvation. They saw the 9th ward neighborhood that was home for us totally destroyed, houses shifted off their foundations and lying in the middle of the street.

When we first entered the city on September 2, military and police forced us to pull out after only a couple of hours. The reports of shooting and other rampant crimes had turned New Orleans into a virtual war zone. One of our officers, Ranero, remarked that she felt like she was living in a twilight zone; she was in a bad dream and she just wanted to wake up.

© LA/SPCA

Chaos quickly ensued in the early days as the rescue lists grew by the thousands. The inability to communicate by land lines and the inability to install computer systems in those early days made it challenging to organize one central list that everyone could work from. To this day we’re still recovering from that and moving mountains to reunite owners with pets that had to be transported all over the country. The calls for help from people looking for their animals are often heartbreaking and unforgettable.

I feel guilty sleeping even a few hours, but I know I can’t continue without just a little. Images of animals in water, scared and suffering, play over and over again in my head. I try to push them out by staying focused on the task at hand. I was doing fairly well until I was interviewed by an NPR reporter who asked me questions about individual animals and my staff. After I apologized for crying, she asked me if I’d had a day off. I hadn’t. It had been a month.

When you experience such sadness, you have a tendency to hang on to the lighter moments as well. In the later days, as rescue calls waned and owners began calling to look for their pets, I’ll never forget the call we received from a woman looking for a snake who’d been rescued from her home in the French Quarter. She called on a Wednesday and she desperately needed to find her snake by Friday, she said. We couldn’t help but wonder if she was an exotic dancer who needed her accessory before she paraded across a French Quarter stage that weekend. It was a crazy time.

The scene at Lamar-Dixon was a hub of never-ending activity. And the weather was hot. Very hot. In a short time, our skin became weather-beaten. Volunteers from all over the country swarmed around; they were sweaty, bleary-eyed, and plain old tired. Animal control officers from the Louisiana SPCA, the SPCA of Texas, and agencies in other cities converged back at command central after 7 p.m. every night, wide-eyed from lack of sleep. The look on their faces reminded me of photos I’ve seen in Time magazine of young soldiers fresh off the battlefields in Iraq.

© LA/SPCA
A former coffee warehouse in Algiers has replaced the Japonica Street shelter, which had been part of the fabric of New Orleans since the '60s.

In these most difficult times, we had the support of colleagues from across the country, and that’s something I will never forget. When we initially coordinated the temporary shelter on August 31, we did so with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and the Veterinary Medical Association. Many animal welfare organizations from San Diego, Houston, Boston, Lafayette, New York, Oregon, Arizona, and Connecticut set up camp with us. The Humane Society of the United States was there. The ASPCA joined forces, too, and the support they gave us, and continue to give, is immeasurable. They, along with many others, became our guardian angels.

RVs and Winnebagos parked alongside our colorful spay/neuter mobile unit. For a time, our mobile unit served as command central at Lamar. Many days it was a struggle to keep it running. Generators had to be repaired; we were using them to the max just to keep our many cell phone batteries juiced. It was almost comical to see us scurrying from trailer to trailer looking for battery juice to print documents, return phone calls, and run laptops. When Hurricane Rita set its sights on Texas, we drove the mobile center to the Houston SPCA so they could use it in their own rescue efforts. We broke down on the way, which only added to the bedlam of daily life.

After the military took control of the city, we set up command in the city’s Emergency Operations Center in the Hyatt Hotel. We occupied a desk in the hotel’s cavernous ballroom. Along with us, there was FEMA, the Red Cross, the Sewerage and Water Board, Entergy, the USDA, the CDC, and a host of other agencies. During this time, I made daily trips back and forth between New Orleans and Gonzales.

The military accompanied me to survey the damage, for the first time, at Japonica Street. Now when I look at the videotape of what was once our building and see the furniture thrown across rooms, the gaping holes, the silt and the mold, what stands out on the tape are all the times I uttered “Oh my God!” upon seeing the damage. The stench stays in my nostrils for days. We have lost records and files. Just days before Katrina hit, we had finalized an anti-dogfighting campaign of t-shirts and we were about to post them on our website. All the shirts were ruined. Thankfully, we had evacuated with files from a few of our biggest dogfighting busts, preserving important evidence.

As I write this, the Japonica Street shelter that has been a part of New Orleans since the early ’60s is scheduled to be gutted any day now. I have a skeleton staff based here in New Orleans and a few staff working remotely from other parts of the state. We are retrofitting a former coffee warehouse in Algiers into an animal shelter. We still have colleagues coming in from other parts of the country to help us rebuild. For now, we are only managing animal control and have suspended other normal activities. Our adoption services, veterinary clinic, and the other humane programs we provided are temporarily on hold until we can rebuild a staff. Like any other organization, we are challenged by the limited housing available in the city. Some of our staff are still relying on friends of friends for a place to stay. Many of our remaining attendants and officers are living in a group house setting in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, doing the long commute to New Orleans every day. In collaboration with our colleagues, we’ve rescued over 8,500 animals.

© LA/SPCA
They had seen their city die before their eyes, witnessed animal tragedies no one should ever have to see, had no time to deal with their own losses.

During that staff meeting I held in Algiers, as we gathered around the picnic table, I shared with them my thoughts that in all this sadness, destruction, and massive change, there is good and bad. I had learned only the day before that I would be losing two key members of my staff. They had seen their city die before their eyes, witnessed animal tragedies no one should ever have to see, had no time to deal with their own losses. They need a break. They need to go away for a while, clear their heads, and regroup. I cry when I think of losing them, but I certainly understand. I stand in awe of this staff that just continues to forge ahead.

I share with them a strong belief that we can bounce back from this to a place stronger and better than we were before. We are receiving immeasurable support from colleagues everywhere. Thanks to the generosity of animal lovers, shelter colleagues, and vendors across the country, we are rebuilding with tools at hand that we didn’t have at Japonica Street. Our building on Japonica Street was falling apart. Now we can start anew. The opportunities are limitless.

I’ve often said that my work with the Louisiana SPCA is the most rewarding, fulfilling thing I have ever done. I’ve always felt fortunate to work with a group of people who are so diverse and unique in their respective backgrounds and lifestyles. I have always relished the challenges of working in animal welfare in Louisiana, and particularly New Orleans, where the need is great.

In spite of Katrina, and in a strange way because of Katrina, I still do.

 

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