NEW ORLEANS � For weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck, the only noise here in the empty neighborhoods of sodden houses was the barking of dogs. Then the barking stopped. Dogs are still here, but many are too hoarse and weak to make a sound. Many others have died. But hundreds of volunteer pet rescuers insist it's not too late.
"The animals we are finding now are emaciated and sick and lonely, but we are still finding them alive," says Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.
Across the New Orleans area, the largest pet rescue operation in U.S. history has been a backdrop to the human suffering and the questions of how and when communities can be rebuilt. But from the start, pets have been part of the story � from the tens of thousands of animals left behind by their owners because shelters and hotels wouldn't accept them, to the scattered residents who risked their lives and refused to evacuate so they could stay with their pets.
Five weeks after the flooding began, animal rescue teams continue to fan across New Orleans and surrounding parishes every day at dawn in a race against diminishing odds. They gather up hundreds of desperate pets every day � more than 8,000 so far. And they leave behind fresh water and dry food for the dogs and cats roaming the streets that rescuers do not have enough staff to find or collect.
"We have left out tens of thousands of pounds of food and water to extend their lives," Pacelle says.
The Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and other rescuers say they have no way of knowing precisely how many pets were left behind when the area was evacuated just before the storm hit Aug. 29. Surveys by the American Veterinary Medical Association indicate that two-thirds of U.S. households have at least one pet.
The number of rescued animals has so overwhelmed the temporary shelters set up by the Humane Society in nearby Gonzales, La., and Hattiesburg, Miss., that some pets are being flown to shelters in two dozen other states. The need for shelter space also has led the Humane Society to send more than 200 animals to temporary quarters on the grounds of two Louisiana prisons, where inmates are caring for rescued animals, Pacelle says.
It's become a small-scale version of the hurricane diaspora that displaced more than 1 million people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The rescue effort, which includes reconstruction of animal shelters in Louisiana and Mississippi, will cost more than $15 million, Pacelle says. The Humane Society has raised about $17 million in donations so far.
"They're shaggy-looking, they're suffering the same emotional loss that people are," Mark Madary, a St. Bernard Parish councilman, says of the homeless pets he has helped to round up in the communities south of New Orleans that were swamped by Katrina's 21-foot storm surge. "They're scared. They want food. They want somebody to take care of them.
"Most of the dogs got loose because the flood destroyed front doors," Madary says. "They're coming up to (rescuers') vehicles. You'd think they'd go for water first, but they go for food. They're starving."
Madary spent the first week after Katrina helping to rescue more than 7,000 residents by boat. Last week, he helped other volunteers in St. Bernard collect 400 pets that were sent to the large shelter in Gonzales, set up in the horse stalls at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.
From there, many pets from St. Bernard were flown to shelters in California, where they will stay until they are reclaimed by their owners or adopted. Most rescued pets are kept at the large shelters in Mississippi and Louisiana for 48 hours before they are shipped out.
The animals are fed, watered, treated by veterinarians and petted. Every animal is photographed. The mug shots are posted on www.petfinder.com, a website set up by the consortium of animal groups overseeing the rescue, to help displaced pet owners locate their animals.
There are only about 50 reunions between owners and pets a day, Pacelle says.
Francis Louis Jr., who lives north of downtown New Orleans, is one of the few local owners reunited with his dog. He left Roscoe, a 5-year-old shepherd mix, in his backyard with enough food and water to last a week. Then Louis fled.
"We figured we'd be back in a day or so, but then the worst came to pass," Louis says.
When he returned home three weeks later, he found a note saying that Roscoe had been rescued and taken to the shelter in Gonzales, about 50 miles northwest of New Orleans. When Louis was reunited with Roscoe, the dog was whining and crying. Louis was overjoyed.
Pets whose owners have been found are shipped home to them, wherever home is these days.
Most of the rescued animals have been cats or dogs, but the refugee population also includes exotic birds, snakes, fish, hamsters, rabbits, goats and a few pot-bellied pigs. At first, local animal shelters filled up so quickly that volunteers couldn't keep up with cleaning the cages. "We ship 300 out in a day and get 400 in," Pacelle says.
More than 1,000 veterinarians, animal control officers and activists from state chapters of the ASPCA are involved in rescue efforts here. About 80 animals were so aggressive or so close to death when they were rescued that they were euthanized, Pacelle says. But most rescued pets bounce back quickly once they receive food and water.
After Oct. 15, most of the pets that have not been claimed can be put up for adoption under applicable state laws, Pacelle says. However, he says that deadline could be extended because so many pets are still arriving at shelters. Animals that are not claimed will be kept at the shelters across the country until they can be adopted, he says.
The images of residents on their roofs, stranded after staying behind with their pets, and packs of gaunt, frightened dogs roaming through debris after Katrina have led to changes in evacuation policies.
As Hurricane Rita approached last month, Texas suspended rules that barred pets from shelters there. The state's homeland security chief, Steve McCraw, urged evacuees to take their pets with them.
The Humane Society is urging Congress to pass a bill that would require state and local emergency management agencies that receive federal funding to allow pets to be included in evacuation plans.
Animals still in houses
In the first few days after Katrina hit, animals seemed to be everywhere in New Orleans.
"Where there was water, you would see packs of dogs swimming," says Cory Smith, 32, a former animal control officer in Washington, D.C., who has been helping to rescue pets here.
About two weeks ago, when it became clear that the volunteers couldn't round up all the stray animals, they began to leave out food and water. Pacelle says it has made a noticeable difference in the health of the pets living on the streets.
The concern now is for animals still trapped in houses. More than 5,000 pet owners have called the Humane Society and asked volunteers to enter their houses and retrieve or feed animals. That has been a slow process: At many addresses, the volunteers have heard the sounds of pets trapped in nearby houses, so they've entered those homes as well.
Jane Garrison, a Humane Society staffer in Washington, D.C., has divided the city into 35 sectors and dispatches search teams after dawn each day. The volunteers are armed with pet food, water, cages and a lot of ingenuity. Garrison says that when she entered one home, she went through the homeowners' old mail, found a cellphone bill and called the owner. "I said, 'I was just in your house, (and) forgive me for going through your mail, (but) I just rescued your two cats.' He was thrilled," she says.
Rescuers also have found heart-breaking scenes � dogs that drowned after being chained to porches, pets that starved to death in carriers. One dog, Garrison says, tried unsuccessfully to chew its way out of a carrier before it died.
National Guardsmen across the region have given rescuers lists of dogs they've seen while on patrol. A week ago, several Guardsmen pointed out a St. Bernard-mastiff still stuck on a roof, which Garrison helped rescue and reunite with its owner. "He was standing there, panting and drooling," Garrison says. "He drank three gallons of water before we left the house."
Even with that, the dog weighed 40 pounds � less than half what the veterinarians in Gonzales calculated he should have weighed.
On a recent mission, volunteer rescuers Smith and Drew Moore, of Corvallis, Ore., searched door-to-door in the Mid City area, where the floodwaters had reached 12 inches or higher.
With spray paint, they scrawled coded messages on each searched house: "F/W SPCA 1 DOG," said one note, meaning they'd left food and water behind for a dog they had not seen. The work was tedious. It took a crowbar to get inside some houses, and Smith and Moore didn't find many pets. Some had been retrieved or set loose by neighbors.
At one house, Smith paused, sure she had heard the bark of a small dog. She disappeared inside, followed by Moore. But they found nothing, despite the "Beware of Dog" sign on the fence. "It was a little dog," she said as the pair moved down the street. "It's so scary. That bark was maybe his last."
By afternoon, they had retrieved three cats and a small collie. The collie ran away when they first approached him, but followed their truck to the next address. When Smith and Moore emerged from another house, the collie was waiting for them, ready to be rescued.