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The Sorrow is in the Details

In the first days after the storm, some people wondered how anyone could have left their pets behind. As we would all soon discover, that was the wrong question to ask.

In the first days after the storm, some people wondered how anyone could have left their pets behind. As we would all soon discover, that was the wrong question to ask.

Liz Roll Photography/Courtesy of FEMA
Maybe it was the “white smiley patch” on the stomach of a gray cat that got to me first. Or maybe it was the gray hairs on the chin of a Lab who walked with a slight limp “due to a pin in her right front leg.”

It could have been the blue Hawaiian flowers of a pit bull’s collar, the black mark on the bottom right lip of a Siamese cat with a 2½-inch tail, the honey coloring of a Pomeranian named Baby, the “big head” of a bow-legged poodle, the black-striped toes and “Egyptian black eyeliner” of two German shepherds, the shaved belly of a recently spayed black cat, or the mixed breed who, “when she gets to know you, gives you a deep growl.”

It was always the minutia of the rescue requests and lost reports that magnified my grief. The same characteristics that have landed animals in shelters for decades were relayed with devotion by the pet owners of Katrina. “Sheds so much!” read one lost report filed at the Lamar-Dixon emergency shelter, the exclamation point punctuated by a heart shape the owner had drawn in place of a dot. “She was just groomed before the hurricane. She had fingernail polish on her nails. She had bows on her ears (light purple with paw prints). She had beautiful long eyelashes. She has a nickname—Woogie. She usually has very dry skin under her armpits and under her neck.”

If it hadn’t been for the small stuff, maybe I could have focused more, slept more, cried less. But it was the details that consumed me. They ate at my insides until they threatened to make me hollow, a shell walking around in baggy and progressively more rancid old HSUS shirts with absurd numbers of urgent requests and notes and cell phone chargers spilling out of all my pockets.

“She has a crook at the end of her tail where it kind of bends in a different direction, but you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t go and feel around for it,” said one caller whose dog I eventually found.

“He has a mole on his stomach that you can’t see unless you really dig through his belly hairs,” said another caller whose dog I never recovered.

“He has longer legs and snout than normal Labs,” read a description in Petfinder that began with present-tense verbs but, heartbreakingly, lapsed into the past tense by the end: “He liked to drink from the faucet. He liked playing fetch with the green tennis balls.”

Rebecca Simmons/HSUS
And there were so many others: the chow mix with the distinctive spots on the underside of his tongue; the tabby who held his paws in the air when he wanted attention; the husky mix with one blue eye and one brown; the basset hound with the wart on her behind. Each detail was lovingly and urgently described by people whose minds obsessed over every inch of their animals’ bodies and every aspect of their behavior, from the way they walked to the way they cocked their heads to the way they meowed like a freight train or barked without really making a sound. The descriptions came pouring in, first by the hundreds, then the thousands. If my colleagues and I weren’t taking the calls or returning them, we were constantly reading, sorting, and distributing urgent requests to staff and volunteers who were madly entering addresses into the databases and searching for lost animals as if lives depended on it—because, in so many cases, lives did depend on it.

During all those months of taking first the rescue requests and later the reunion calls at our hastily assembled HSUS call centers, I alternated between showering my own animals with more love than their old crusty selves could bear and not paying enough attention to their emotional needs. I looked at them and wondered, if a storm wiped out my house, my city, my whole life as I know it in central Maryland, could I accurately describe the color of the fur on Mattiebo’s belly or the length of the white lightning-bolt shape that runs down the Dudelet’s back leg and onto his toes? Which back leg was the lightning bolt on anyway—right or left? I was embarrassed to discover that I did not know. In the rare moments when I wasn’t glued to Petfinder searching for other people’s animals, I studied my own fat cat and his petite border collie sister as if I were filing a lost report myself. And I felt guilty that both they and I were the luckiest animals on earth: we all had food to eat, water to drink, windows that looked out onto an intact landscape, another human in the house who loved us, and multiple cushiony soft spots to lay our heads on.

The phrase “they lost everything” became not just a mantra but a catalyst for continued reunion efforts, both at the HSUS disaster call centers and in local shelters. But some people we spoke with had lost even more than everything. It wasn’t enough that they had no more homes, cars, or jobs; one woman calling from a nursing home to look for her beloved cats had also lost her husband. Another filed a lost report on her missing animals, only to then ask tentatively if she might trouble us to help her find the number for reporting missing persons because she had yet to locate her grandchild.

And yet, in the midst of all the terrible devastation the forces of nature had thrown at them, these people were still looking for their pets—animals with names like Sugar, Sweetie, Cinnamon, Honey, Noodle, Tiffany, Bear, Porkchop, Stephanie, Little Bit, Sneezey, Carlos, Buster, Mr. Kitty, Sebastian, and Stinky. Some, like a dog named Heidi Jones, were so much a part of the family that they carried their surnames with them all the way to their lost reports.

Sometimes we could find these pets safely ensconced in shelters or foster homes that, although far away, were feeding and nurturing and loving them back to health in the hopes of finding their owners. Other times we couldn’t. But still, we were thanked, over and over again, by people who didn’t even have a can opener left to their name. One woman I befriended along the way sent me an extravagant bouquet of flowers—the only bouquet of flowers I’ve ever received—even though I never did find her dog. Shelters often saw the same kind of generosity from the victims of Katrina: A woman living in a FEMA trailer after losing everything she owned sent a $25 check to Vermont Volunteer Services for Animals—a thank-you to the organization that had reunited her with her cat. Even Katrina victims who came up empty-handed when calling shelters often bestowed those agencies with kind words in return for their efforts.

Chad Sisneros/HSUS
“We had people say, ‘I’m so glad that you’re taking care of the animals,’ even if it wasn’t their animal,” says Tara Hall, director of operations at the Dumb Friends League in Denver, Colorado. “The outpouring of gratitude from these folks that didn’t have anything left to give—it just makes you happy to be part of the human race.”

Early in this disaster, many people in our field were not so sympathetic to the plight of the pet owners in Louisiana and Mississippi. They didn’t know yet that some were risking their lives to stay behind with their animals, only to be airlifted off rooftops without them anyway or held at gunpoint and forced to let them go. They didn’t know yet that some people thought their animals would be safer at home than on the road or in a human shelter or hotel that wouldn’t officially accept them. And they didn’t know that some people just didn’t have the ways and means so many of us take for granted—enough space in a car to help the whole family get out of Dodge, or even any car at all.

“I went down to Louisiana ready to be so angry at those people for leaving their animals because nobody on God’s earth would tell me I couldn’t take my animals with me if a natural disaster happened,” says Sue Skaskiw, executive director of Vermont Volunteer Services for Animals and a volunteer in St. Bernard’s Parish.

But it took only one conversation with a pet owner to change Skaskiw’s mind—so much so that when she returned to Vermont, she spent many of her spare moments assisting human Katrina victims. Already an animal advocate who’d urged the inclusion of pets in statewide evacuation plans, Skaskiw soon became an advocate for people as well, reuniting three owners with pets in her care and lending a kind ear to some of the countless others still searching.

One of the first calls I took at our headquarters came from a woman in the 9th Ward who’d had to evacuate 13 extended family members in one vehicle. Phoning from a Red Cross shelter in Texas, she wanted to see if her three dogs and one cat could be saved. In describing them, she let on that she’d adopted two of the dogs from the Louisiana SPCA and taken in the third from a neglectful neighbor. I asked for details: How old were they? Did they have any special markings? Were they microchipped? Were they spayed and neutered?

“Oh yes, they’re spayed—I spay all my animals,” the woman responded quickly, and the quiet desperation in her voice made me regret not explaining the reason for my question before I’d asked it. “One of them wasn’t spayed yet because she was only a few months old and the vet said to wait because she was sick, but I was going to have it done when she got better.”

I tried to assure her that I wasn’t judging her, that I knew she took good care of her animals, and that I was only asking for the kind of information that might make identification easier later if the animals were rescued. What followed made me ache for her. In her time of desperate need, she was so gracious, more than I ever could have been in her circumstances. “Even if I don’t get my animals back,” she said, “I just hope they can be rescued. They are good animals.”

By the time they reached us or a local shelter for help, many people were so used to feeling abandoned and judged by society, the media, and the government that they didn’t expect much more from the animal welfare movement. At the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA, a staff member named Renee was surprised when she initially got the cold shoulder from an evacuee who’d traveled to California to be reunited with her animal.

“Renee met her at the airport and went to give her a hug, and she returned it very tentatively,” says the organization’s president, Mark Goldstein. “After she was reunited with her animal, she shared with Renee that her greatest fear in coming out here was that she was going to get off the plane and Renee would see that she was black and not care.”

On the return trip, with her animal in tow, the woman hugged goodbye so hard that, Renee reported delightedly to Goldstein, “she almost took the breath out of my lungs!”

The San Diego Humane Society spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on rescue and reunion efforts—in part because they wanted people to know that they do care about them.

“You can take people who lost their work, lost their possessions, lost their house, lost everything in their life,” says Goldstein, “but they find their animals and they have hope.”

Before Katrina, I’m not sure I would have believed how much someone could love an animal they kept in the backyard and described as a “guard dog.” But on my way out one evening, I got a call from a woman who fit just that description. Her German shepherd was not a “people person,” she told me, but he had a special bond with her. When she broke down in the middle of telling me her story, her husband took over the phone and finished it for her. In a kind, tired voice, he said the dog was mostly a guard dog who’d been left with food, water, and neighbors next door who were looking after him. But the dog had been classified as “aggressive” because—after someone had cut the chain on the gate to the backyard—he’d bitten a fireman who’d tried to rescue him from a canal behind the house.

As it turned out, a Louisiana animal control agency was kindly holding onto the dog but had made the responsible decision not to rehome him if his original family could no longer keep him. The couple had been given five weeks to retrieve the dog, but they had no place to take him.

At this point in the conversation, the woman got back on the phone. Wasn’t there any fostering agency, any sanctuary, she asked me, or even anybody with a backyard who could just look after him until they got back on their feet?

“Even if it’s just a small backyard, that’s all we would need for now,” she said. “I would go there and bathe him myself every day. He likes his baths, but I’m the only one who can do it.”

There were other details that made her story hard for me to bear: her mother had died a few years before, then her son had died, and now, it seemed, her dog was going to die, too. I consulted with my colleagues before posting the couple’s information on the area of Petfinder that allows people to search for foster homes—along with details of the dog’s story and a warning that the dog was aggressive.

Even though I knew the dog wasn’t in the best situation before the storm, I was no longer certain of my own assumptions. Just because this woman didn’t have her dog inside didn’t mean she wasn’t devoted to him. She may not have been devoted enough, but who’s to say?

Kathy Milani/HSUS
“What was clear to us is every individual we met loved their animal,” says Goldstein. “And yes, maybe that love doesn’t play out the same way we would want it to, but I think the onus has been on us to educate our community. What we’ve found in following up is that once people came here and they heard our spiel about spaying and neutering, about heartworm preventative—we sent them home with a couple of months’ supply of preventative medication—they have changed how they care for their animals. They have greater value for them. I think some of this is just a learning curve. I don’t think we should be so quick to judge.”

Katrina brought to life the studies suggesting that often it’s not even lack of education but rather economic hardship that leaves animals intact and leads to spotty veterinary care.

“When you love a pet, you love a pet,” says Hall. “It may mean different things; it may mean that when you’ve got to choose between putting food on the table and spaying your dog, you’re going to put food on the table. But it doesn’t mean that you love your dog any less.”

To some in the animal welfare field, the presence of heartworm was a sign that people didn’t care enough; postings on listservs scolded owners behind their backs for failing to take better care of their pets. The prevalence of the disease among Katrina animals was high—some shelters reported that more than 50 percent of the dogs they’d taken in needed heartworm treatment. But heartworm is also a lot easier to get in climates where “the mosquito is the state bird,” says Jake White, director of marketing and management information systems for the SPCA of Central Florida. And as White and his colleagues discovered, the presence of heartworm could not be used as a measure of devotion.

One evacuee in Orlando had been forced to part with his dog because the hotel room he shared with several families was too crowded. Even though man and beast were separated for only a few days, the man was overjoyed and thankful to be able to reunite with his little brown, white, and black mutt—and he got the added benefit of having his dog treated for heartworm disease.

“He was a ‘nuisance gator trapper,’ and he had a black t-shirt on that said, ‘Keep honking—I’m reloading!’ ” recalls White. “He looked meaner than the hottest sun that has ever scorched the earth, a grizzled old man … and looked like he hadn’t shaved in about six years and like he hadn’t combed his hair in probably the same amount of time. He had a deep, tanned, wrinkled face. And when he did speak, it was short: ‘Yeah, whatever!’

“This man wept openly, crying at the sight of his dog. It’s bringing tears to my eyes just thinking about it. That was his baby.”

Thousands of people lost their pets during the storm. Thousands more tried to help find them. We’ll never recover all the animals, and maybe, I sometimes fear, we’ll never recover all of our old selves. Too much has happened—too much loss, too many feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, too much longing to help stem a tide that was far too great for any of us, alone or together, to really push back. I was in awe of everyone’s willingness to try, though. Even on site here at HSUS, far away from the disaster zone, I watched my colleagues—Betsy McFarland, Carrie Allan, Tracy Klein, Kate Antoniades, Dawn Lauer, Sara Miller, Steve Swartz, Cory Smith, Katie Conlee, and so many others—put everything they had into helping those who had nothing. In a round-the-clock race against time after the levees were breeched, Betsy even lost 15 pounds—more than she had available to lose—in the process of helping to set up the call centers.

But maybe it’s a good thing that we’ll leave some of our old selves behind. I don’t even know who those old selves were; I can’t really remember anymore. I wish this had never happened, but since it did, I’m glad we know so much more about the people of Louisiana and Mississippi than we ever would have from watching a TV report. I’m glad we spoke with them and helped in whatever little way we could. And now I truly know how lucky I am—and how imperative it is that I continue to help those who aren’t. As we in the animal welfare field have long tried to tell local, state, and federal lawmakers, animal issues are people issues. Governments still need to recognize that you can’t effectively address one without addressing the other. And if we want to succeed as a movement, so do we.

Nancy Lawson is the editor of Animal Sheltering magazine.


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