Hundreds of pets homeless in New Orleans a year after Katrina by Mira Oberman
Thu Aug 24, 3:24 PM ET
NEW ORLEANS, United States (AFP) - A symphony of barks echoes through the converted warehouse acting as New Orleans' temporary animal shelter a year after Hurricane Katrina separated thousands of pets from their owners.
Most of the animals rescued after 80 percent of the city was flooded have found their way back to their owners or to new homes across the country.
But the city's only animal shelter - which operates out of an old coffee warehouse without air conditioning or drainage - is still full of hundreds of pets awaiting adoption.
Some are strays found wandering through the rubble of abandoned homes. Others were given up by owners unable to care for them because of the stress of living in tiny trailers while they rebuild their homes, among other reasons.
"People are still getting their lives together," explained Gloria Dauphin, the assistant director of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). "Housing is a big, big issue and renting with an animal is next to impossible."
Tails wagging and tongues lagging, the dogs follow people walking by the rows of cages with bright eyes, yipping and begging for some attention. Cats meow and stick their paws through the bars, ready to play and purring at the scratch of an ear.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 animals died in the floods or in the hot, lonely days after evacuees were barred from taking their pets or returning to find them.
"So many people would not leave because the government came to rescue the people and left the pets behind," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.
"There was an incredible drama that played out and a recognition that an incredible bond exists between people and their animals, and if you fail to account for that bond your work is going to be undermined."
Animal rescue workers found their efforts stymied when they were barred from entering the city until a week after the storm hit. They paddled through floodwaters and broke into houses to rescue the pets of people who thought they would only be gone two or three days. Animals barred from evacuation buses were picked up on the streets as they rooted through garbage in search of food.
About 16,000 pets were rescued and shipped to shelters across the country.
Only 15 to 20 percent were eventually reunited with their owners. A lack of proper identification and technology to handle such a huge project slowed the reunion process, as did the time it took evacuees to find suitable housing.
A couple dozen families have since sued aid agencies because the new owners of their pets would not return them.
Pacelle said there a strong moral and legal case to be made that the animals should be returned to their original owners, but that the shelters could not house the pets indefinitely while waiting for owners to track them down.
Seven states and the federal government have since passed laws ensuring that evacuation plans include pets, and some of those laws have even provided funds for pet-friendly shelters.
Animal shelters across the country have contacted the Louisiana SPCA to get a copy of its evacuation plan, which managed to safely evacuate 263 animals ahead of the storm. That foresight saved their lives: when the shelter's staff was finally allowed to return they found the shelter swamped with eight feet of water, Dauphin said.
The SPCA is currently raising funds for a new 17 million dollar facility slated to open in January.