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Winning One for the Nippers

Some of the dogs rescued from New Orleans were not at their friendliest. It took a tender, cautious touch to care for them—and make decisions about their futures.

Some of the dogs rescued from New Orleans were not at their friendliest. It took a tender, cautious touch to care for them—and make decisions about their futures.

The ownership status of Katrina animals was not always this certain, so dogs of all temperaments had to be housed, cared for, and comforted for extended periods. LOUISIANA SPCA
In March 2005, officials from the Louisiana State Police, federal law enforcement, the Louisiana SPCA, and The HSUS raided the home of Floyd Boudreaux, the Lafayette man often referred to—with admiration or disdain, depending on the speaker—as the “godfather of dogfighting.”

Boudreaux and his son, Guy, were charged with animal cruelty, possession of steroids, possession of a sawed-off shotgun, and 64 counts of dogfighting. The 57 dogs who were found on the property, some of whom had obvious fighting scars, were euthanized for the sake of public safety. Boudreaux and his son were famous breeders. The Boudreaux line of pit bulls was internationally known for the “gameness” of the dogs, a term that refers to the mysterious blend of traits—strength, courage, tenacity—that makes for a “great fighter.” Many of the Boudreauxs’ dogs had become fighting champions, and according to a New Orleans Times-Picayune article about the bust, people had been known to pay up to $10,000 for the pick of a Boudreaux litter. The article also quoted Guy Boudreaux as saying that his father “gave away more dogs than he ever sold.”

Anyone who rescued or helped care for animals in New Orleans after Katrina could see that Boudreaux wasn’t kidding. Sterilization isn’t as common in the South, and many dogs are allowed to roam free, contributing to uncontrolled breeding. While not all of the dogs coming in from the moldy houses and flooded streets could have traced their bloodlines back to the Boudreaux yard in Lafayette, many of them showed the classic traits of the bloodline; of the dogs brought in to the emergency shelter at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, more than 50 percent were pit bulls and pit mixes.

Strength. Courage. Tenacity. The same traits that can be manipulated and exploited to turn pits into fighters also make the dogs delightful pets in the hands of an owner or trainer who understands and loves the breed. But dogfighting was a common problem in pre-Katrina New Orleans, and at Lamar-Dixon, hundreds of pit bulls and other dogs of unknown backgrounds were arriving daily, many of them stressed out, hungry, and traumatized. The situation forced on-site staff and volunteers to figure out quickly how to house them humanely and safely.

In a typical shelter environment, there is a general consensus about handling aggressive, biting dogs. You treat them with compassion. You protect your staff, visitors, and the other animals in your care. And when the holding period is up, if they are not claimed, you euthanize them.

In Gonzales, however, nothing was that simple. It was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, and that complicated handling in two primary ways: Because many of the aggressive animals of Katrina were thought to be owned, holding periods that would be up in a matter of days under normal circumstances stretched into weeks and even months. And while the stress of a typical shelter environment can certainly elicit behaviors that would not be present in a happily homed dog, the dogs arriving from New Orleans after Katrina had already been through unprecedented trauma before even being introduced into the nation’s largest emergency animal shelter.

The situation was far from ideal, and it was left to hundreds of disaster volunteers to care for, house, and make placement decisions about these animals as humanely and wisely as possible. Many of the good folks who came to help had the best of intentions but little animal-handling experience—especially not with handling game-bred pit bulls or aggressive dogs.

Experts to the Rescue

Fortunately for those dogs and volunteers, help was on the way. Breed and dog behavior experts stepped forward to give generously of their time and compassion. “When the hurricane hit, we thought, ‘Oh man, they’re going to be just deluged with pit bulls,’ ” says Donna Reynolds, executive director of a San Francisco-based advocacy group called BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls).

This dog took shelter from his flooded New Orleans home inside the cage of an air-conditioning unit attached to the house. He was terrified and prepared to defend himself against anyone trying to remove him from his cubbyhole—even rescuers determined to get him to a safer place.
“We realized that people would be dealing with a lot of handling difficulties and housing difficulties, so we gathered up our resources and went down there to see what kind of help we could offer as far as handling protocols and assessment help.”

Even in the devastated areas of the South, dogfighters had already begun thinking ahead. At Lamar- Dixon, fences and security had to be set up to keep people from stealing animals. The rescue site was so overwhelmed with people and animals and rumors of fighters cruising the kennels for potential fighting dogs that by the time Reynolds and her team arrived, those on-site at Lamar were more prepared for trouble than assistance. “The first hour we were there, the military police were trying to escort us out because they had the idea we were there to steal pit bulls,” says Reynolds.

Once they’d persuaded those in charge that they were there to help, Reynolds and her team did whatever they could: handling the animals, setting up more appropriate housing, and working with nervous volunteers to explain that most of the pits posed no danger to people. They showed them the right kinds of leashes to use and explained how to get the dogs out of their crates safely.

Some of the adjustments they made addressed the comfort of both dogs and people. The dogs were really overstimulated, Reynolds says. “Nothing sparks a pit bull more than being around other pit bulls. They were way reactive, way loud barking, just crazy, crazy barking.”

To help with that issue, volunteers fashioned visual barriers between the crates holding pit bulls by taking spare crates apart and using their floors as makeshift walls between the wire exteriors so that the dogs weren’t forced to look at each other all the time.

“And we had squirt bottles and we would go around and scold them for barking, and because most of them are really people-soft dogs, they would actually stop barking,” says Reynolds. “They were like, ‘Oops, I’m in trouble … I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that!’ ”

The volunteers were invaluable in improving the care of the aggressive, freaked-out dogs, says Cory Smith, program manager of Animal Sheltering Issues for The HSUS. “One really cool thing that I saw happen was that instead of walking the potentially aggressive dogs along the same route as the other dogs, the volunteers created a separate route for them so that there would be minimal contact or little chance to get close to another dog while walking,” Smith recalls. “And they emptied out an entire row of stalls on the end of the barn, took off the doors, and covered the ground with sawdust so the dogs could be brought to their own little space to go to the bathroom and play and sniff without having to see the dog next to them.”

Even with the adjustments, the barn holding the aggressive animals was probably the hardest place to work, says Karen Thunshelle, a shelter manager who traveled from the Souris Valley Humane Society in Minot, North Dakota, to help with aggressive dogs. Working with veterinarian Becky Rhoades of the Kauai Humane Society in Hawaii, Thunshelle and her kennel supervisor stayed for about eight days. They watched many volunteers come and go from one day to the next.

Thunshelle understands the desire to flee. Under criteria developed by Rhoades and approved by the federal Veterinary Medical Assistance Team (VMAT), the Public Health Service, The HSUS, and the Louisiana state veterinarian, only the most unsocialized, aggressive, or severely ill animals were euthanized; any decision to euthanize required the signatures of three veterinarians and a holding period of at least three days. In the end, only a tiny percentage of animals were euthanized—but that left all of the borderline cases in the aggressive-animal holding areas and the quarantine areas, so volunteers manning those stations had their work cut out for them.

“We were euthanizing some animals in the evening and taking care of the dogs during the day,” says Thunshelle. “So not a lot of reunions, not a lot of the good stuff. …When you’re in a disaster situation, you want to help. But people don’t understand that that is helping, too—just on a much harder level.”

The Benefits of Routine

Thunshelle and her colleague from Minot fine-tuned their aggressive dog-handling skills, she says. In the section they worked in, cleaning the cages and feeding and watering the dogs took twice as long as it did where the critters were calmer and more people-friendly. “You couldn’t just walk these dogs out of their crates,” says Thunshelle.

Donna Reynolds and her crew from BAD RAP provided much needed pit bull expertise on-site, helping volunteers understand the needs of the breed.
Certain volunteers developed a rapport with certain stressed-out, snarling pooches, and they used those bonds to their advantage while doing their daily tasks. “You had your dogs there that you handled, so someone would say, ‘Hey, you can get him out—why don’t we switch?’ ” Thunshelle recalls. “One would pole a dog and one would go in there and clean out the kennel while the other was walking the dog or pottying him. [But with] a few dogs … it was more stressful trying to get them out, even if they were laying in their own messes. You’d want to get them out to clean them, and they literally would try to kill themselves on that pole. You just worked as fast as possible to get them washed off and back in there. Those dogs were completely feral.”

The North Dakota team spent a lot of their time trying to calm the animals in their section, well aware that the dogs’ behavior might not be representative of their normal personalities. While the dogs were getting basic care, the one thing they perhaps needed most—quiet time—was in short supply at Lamar-Dixon. But the routine the group developed had a positive effect, Thunshelle says.

“Dogs are creatures of habit a lot of times, and once you get a routine, whether it’s in a shelter environment or even a disaster environment, they get used to that routine and they get comfortable,” she says.

Tim O’Brien, district manager for the Connecticut Humane Society, had rotating crews of his staff onsite; because of their shelter experience, they too ended up working almost entirely with the aggressive animals. “We had dogs that, the first day they came in, due to malnutrition and fear and a number of different things, they were not only aggressive but they were scared out of their minds,” says O’Brien. The pole was the only way to approach some of the dogs at first, but the group worked with the goal of getting them off the pole and onto a leash, he says.

Over a few days, the extra TLC, special handling, occasional canned food, and time spent talking softly to the dogs elicited a lot of tail wags.

“We were able to get many of these very aggressive, vicious dogs off the poles, and then by the third or fourth day, some of these dogs we were playing with,” O’Brien says. “It really was an amazing experience.”

In the waning days of Lamar- Dixon operations, more and more animals were shipped out to shelters around the country. The agencies that took dogs out in those last days were often left with the most difficult and fractious animals, the ones who had been passed over by the groups that had already come, rescued, worked, exported, and departed. The people working with the pit bulls and the aggressive dogs had tough decisions to make about which animals to send out.

The stress of the experience sometimes elicited unexpected behaviors in even the most unlikely-looking maulers. Originally labeled “dangerous” and placed in the aggressive dog area, this pooch calmed down after a couple of days and settled in with the general population.
Reynolds worked with the groups taking dogs out to determine what resources they had back in their hometowns. Did they have local pit bull breed rescue groups that could help them deal with the more difficult animals? Were they willing to accept any animal aggression in the dogs they took? They were more choosey than they might have been if selecting them for themselves, Reynolds says, knowing that many of the groups did not have pit bull expertise. They also pushed the animals hard during the temperament tests, trying everything to make sure the dogs they were sending out to groups with less pit bull experience were truly ideal pets.

Mother Nature provided some surprise assistance in behavior assessments when Hurricane Rita passed over the area. “I picked out some of the best dogs then,” says Reynolds, “because I saw how resilient they were to that stress and how willing they were to connect with me. They weren’t flipping out in their crates, and they were being calm and solicitous with their eyes, kind of asking, ‘What’s going on?’ and trying to connect. And out of that long night that we didn’t sleep, we picked out the most exceptional animals. … It gave us the opportunity to see if, when push comes to shove and everything is going wrong, are you still going to be a stable animal?”

For the dogs who were actually aggressive, the future after their export to shelters all over the nation was more uncertain. Even when providing as much good care and handling as they could, it was impossible for on-site volunteers to make Lamar-Dixon resemble a normal home environment. Under such circumstances, it was difficult to tell whether the dogs would come out of their shells once back in a quieter place—whether the nipping or charging behaviors were signs of inherently dangerous dogs or merely the understandably defensive behaviors of animals in distress.

Thunshelle hopes for the best for the many creatures she worked with, especially for one German shepherd. “He was an older dog who was a fear-biter. I was able to work with that dog, and by the time I left I was able to walk him over to Barn Four so that he could be shipped off to a shelter,” she says. “He was shy but by no means aggressive—but he had cataracts that somebody who wasn’t paying real close attention may have missed and could reach in and scare him.”

“He will always kind of stick in my head, that one,” Thunshelle says wistfully. “I hope he made it.”


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