Every hurricane report stirs up images of animals lost

Discussion in 'Pet related News stories' started by Pippin, Sep 3, 2009.

  1. Pippin

    Pippin Member

    Jun 30, 2009
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    By Sharon L Peters

    I get edgy this time of year.

    Every report of another hurricane forming out at sea churns up memories, fear of what might happen again.
    And images I'm sure will never dim.

    Of the big old black Lab I called Sir because he was so courtly, a dog that had, I imagined, taken the lead and kept safe the much younger black Lab that entered the shelter with him. Gone.

    Of Katie, the tiny, old rat terrier, affectionate, ailing, not strong enough for the situation she found herself in. Gone.

    Of the worried-looking terrier, traumatized into snappiness, though anyone could tell she had once been a solid pet and could be again. Gone.

    Of so many Mississippi dogs and cats that had somehow survived the evils of Katrina, but weeks later wound up in the Gulfport animal shelter. Gone.

    Some of them, before they landed at the shelter, had been on their own in the post-disaster turmoil for weeks, scrounging a mean, half-life existence, finally so weak that animal control could approach them; some had been cared for by their owners, but couldn't be kept contained because the house was in tatters and fences had blown away; some arriving with litters because so few Southerners sterilize pets; many of them the very last possession finally given up by people decimated, broke and jobless after the storm.

    With limited space, no place to send the overflow, and animals arriving by the hour that they were required by law to admit, shelter officials made awful euthanasia choices every day.

    I met dozens of those animals, like Sir and Katie, that got love and care … and then their time ran out.

    This horrid Katrina aftermath was a reality that I'd not fully contemplated before I took a leave from my job as a Colorado newspaper editor and headed to Mississippi to volunteer my drywalling skills to the people and my dogwalking skills to the animals. The end of one disaster, I now know, is the beginning of a different kind of horror.

    Sixty days after the storm ended, thousands of people were sleeping near snake-infested rubble piles that were once their very nice homes. Three or four families were living in one FEMA trailer. Sheetrock was being rationed — one piece at a time. One Sunday morning there was a feeding frenzy over the lone bucket of joint compound still available at Home Depot. Three-story-high piles of destruction still hadn't been hauled off.

    Just 400 miles from throbbing Memphis and 480 miles from glittery Dallas, this was a deprived, forgotten place that seemed to have no connection to or affiliation with the United States. The headlines and 24-hour coverage had ceased. Now South Mississippi was grinding through reconstruction with no attention and little help.

    And thousands of former pets prowled and starved, many with litters that stood no hope of surviving in the bushes with only a half-dead mother to care for them.

    The shelter was, of course, overwhelmed. Shelter employees, who had themselves suffered huge losses and had nothing but damaged houses and hearts to return to each night, did their best to give every animal some sense of safety and love even in the deafening chaos of runs crammed beyond endurance with stressed-out dogs.

    But in a community teeming with roaming animals and few people with homes or money to take on a pet, dogs and cats were euthanized in large numbers every week. Shelter managers pleaded with shelters near and far to take an animal or five. But response wasn't strong enough. With a few exceptions — including North Shore Animal League America in New York and Denver Dumb Friends League — the answer was no room or no way.

    When one of the animals we had spent hours walking, brushing and petting was, one morning without warning, gone, we rarely spoke of it. My friend Kenn, a Houston newspaper executive who had joined me, broke down twice; I more often. But always privately, and briefly.

    We had to take small comfort in one truth: The day or the hour before they died, those dogs were happy. They'd had a good walk through green grass in the sunshine, far from the frantic din of the shelter. They got to curl up for a few minutes with a person who had nothing more important to do than scratch their ears.

    Not enough, of course. But something.

    We took greater comfort, of course, in the happy goodbyes: Jasmine, a clingy retriever mix, went home with a gentle young couple sympathetic to her desperate need for human touch. Outgoing Sadie headed north with a middle-aged couple in an RV, watching us from the window. And there were others, of course.

    Four got their reprieves because my friends or acquaintances responded to pictures of dozens I e-mailed, and committed to provide homes. The sunny morning I loaded them into my SUV for the 1,100-mile trip was, it may be worth noting, Thanksgiving Day.

    Now that plans are in place to allow pets to be evacuated with their owners, perhaps things will be better. But some will be left, count on it. Last year, after Gustav hit, I spoke with Rich Crook from Best Friends Animal Society an hour after he was allowed into Jefferson Parish. He sounded deflated. He had hoped for the best but found dog after dog tied on porches, locked in one-story houses, chained in yards. This storm hadn't been as bad as predicted, so the animals weren't crushed or drowned. They merely had to endure hours of howling winds and lashing rain, alone, terrified, unprotected.

    Not all people will do the right thing in a disaster. And many of their pets will eventually land in shelters.

    Moreover, when the destruction is extreme, the after-effects will be so prolonged that, as with Katrina, even pets of loving owners will wind up in the shelter system.

    That's what makes my stomach churn.

    Perhaps more help will be offered next time — to the people and to the animals. Maybe someone or many someones will think about Sir, the valiant Lab. And outcomes will be different.


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