Stranded pets come to area
New Freedom group saves 49
September 18, 2005

Amy Kessler, with Animal Rescue Inc. in New Freedom, comforts a Rottweiler and a Pit bull in a New Orleans grocery store parking lot last week. When she walked to the dogs, she said, they jumped on her and nuzzled her

So close.

Just as Clare Sweeney was getting ready to put an abandoned St. Bernard in her vehicle to bring back to York, the animal died in her arms. The dog, like thousands of others, was left behind by an owner running from Hurricane Katrina.

Sweeney, the program director of Animal Rescue in New Freedom, was one of six volunteers to make a marathon run last week to storm ravaged areas.

Her friend, Amy Kessler, saw the dog die.

"I consider myself a strong person," said Kessler, who is also an administrator at Animal Rescue. "But I broke down and cried."

At 7:30 last Wednesday morning, a team of six left York in an effort to help save as many animals as they could. They returned from the Gulf Coast on Friday night with almost 50 dogs and cats they’ll care for and try to reunite with their owners.

During their trip, with the exception of a brief nap at a truck stop, some of the volunteers went 48 hours without sleep.

The closer they got to their destination, the more it became clear that they weren’t going to be able to get a room because most had been booked by government officials and displaced hurricane victims.

When Kessler’s team arrived in New Orleans, she said, the city was spooky and the makeshift animal shelter, created at an area Winn Dixie store, was desperate.

"It’s such a large city," Kessler said. "But it was an absolute ghost town."

While there were few people to be found in the city, the line to drop off animals was continual.

"Person after person kept coming up to us, pleading with us to take their animal," Kessler said.

Many of the animals were bleeding in their eyes, having been hit by debris after Katrina made landfall Aug. 29 in Louisiana and Mississippi. Many had broken bones, and one had its tail amputated as Kessler watched.

More still were matted in their own filth and starving for food and clean water. Animal Rescue surveyed the scene and opted to bring back the animals in most dire need.

In all, they brought back 40 dogs and nine cats.

The animals are being kept in a private kennel while another team of volunteer veterinarians treat the animals for emaciation, dehydration and stress.

"They’ve lost their families, too," said Phil Staelens, Animal Rescue’s director. "It’s just pitiful to see so many animals suffering."

For many of the animals, it wasn’t a case of families not wanting to save them. When the order to evacuate came, those who could not provide their own transportation had to get out by other means.

"If you had to be picked up to be taken to a shelter of get out of town, more often than not, pets were forbidden from going along," Kessler said.

During some of her discussion with National Guard troops, Kessler learned that many families did what they could to give their pets a fighting chance at survival.

"They filled tubs with water and broke open bags of food," she said. "But the destruction was so total that it wasn’t enough."

While the animals are in their kennels and being cared for, their photographs will be taken and posted on But Staelens said the odds of any of the rescued animals being matched up with their owners are slim.

"Even if they were wearing a license issued by a vet, it may not help," Staelens said. "Many of the clinics where the dogs were cared for have been destroyed along with the records that would have helped return these animals home."

Still, Animal Rescue has pledged to make every effort to do just that.

If the original owners cannot be found, then the animals will need new homes. By the time they are put up for adoption, they will have had all of their shots and will have been spayed or neutered.

When that time comes, information about the cats and dogs will be made available at

Meanwhile, Staelens and Kessler said they hope others will consider making a trip to help try to save some of these animals.

"There are animal care groups like the SPCA and Humane Society down there from all over the country," Staelens said in weary voice devoid of 24 more hours of sleep. "But sadly, it doesn’t even seem to be making a dent."