“We have a dog for you!” read the e-mail from Dandelion Dog Rescue. “Judy’s driving her up from New Orleans. Can you wait a few days?”
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Outside, that November day, it was raining. It had been clear and sunny the day I started driving north from where I'd grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area to move to Seattle. But about halfway across Oregon, it started to rain. It kept raining through my first week, as I unpacked and drove in lost circles and tried to settle into working remotely for my Berkeley, Calif.-based company. As I read the e-mail about our soon-to-be dog, it was still raining. The gray dreariness matched my mood.
“Sure,” I wrote back. “We can wait a few more days."
Piecing together a history
Several months earlier, my husband and I had decided to add a dog to our family. A friend, who knew about the plight of the animals left behind in Hurricane Katrina, encouraged us to consider one of those dogs. After contacting an rescue organization, we saw a picture of Diamond, a black German Shepherd mix from St. Bernard Parish. She'd been through hell, and yet, somehow she looked hopeful. I just knew she was meant to be mine.
In the days after, I received scraps of information her. She was an “owner release,” surrendered by her family following Hurricane Katrina. Their house had been flattened, and they had to take refuge in a FEMA trailer, where an 80-pound dog wasn’t allowed.
Like most of the homeless dogs from New Orleans, Diamond had tested positive for heartworm, a parasitic roundworm that resides in the heart of the host animal. Transmitted by mosquitoes, which were rampant in the days and weeks that followed the hurricane, the worms can eventually kill the animal.
The treatment, an arsenic-based shot to the spine, was serious stuff — and expensive, totaling around $300. But we were assured that the cost would be partially defrayed by a grant from a benevolent animal-lover who didn’t want cost to be a barrier for homeless Katrina refugees looking for new owners.
My husband, Steve, and I are unabashed animal lovers, and we ‘d paid close attention to the pet-related coverage of Katrina. Before I’d had any notion that I’d be working for MSNBC.com, I pored over the site’s stories, reading the blogs, watching the videos of people and their pets stranded on rooftops. I wrote a blistering e-mail to Governor Kathleen Blanco when I heard that Louisiana sheriffs were shooting dogs. Heartworm was not going to be a barrier for us.
I was also quite alone in our new home in Redmond, Wash. In late September, our beloved, 16 year-old, three-legged deaf cat lost her long battle with cancer. With Steve at work during the day, I was completely without companionship, in an unfamiliar place in a house that didn’t yet feel like home. And although I hadn’t specifically set out to adopt a Katrina dog, it seemed fated somehow. Diamond was lost, and needed a home. I was lonely, and needed a friend.
New Orleans dog in the Northwest
Days passed. It kept raining. My parents arrived to visit. And then, on Nov. 18, we got the call that Diamond was in Seattle.
Returning from dinner the night of the drop-off, we rounded the dark corner to our cul-de-sac and I saw two women walking a big black dog. I nearly tore the car door from its hinges and leapt out to meet our new family member. She was gorgeous, regal-looking — and scared. I knelt down on the pavement and came face-to-face with her. Her eyes were haunted and sad; I couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine what she had seen.
The first couple of days were hard — Diamond, who we renamed Sophie, paced the halls at night. We often found her standing by the front windows — we imagined that she was searching for Judy McCarthey, who had brought her and six other dogs up from Louisiana in a van. There were clues that she’d perhaps had puppies at the time of the storm: She had several plush toys that she’d carry gently in her mouth and arrange together — crying while she did.
It didn’t take long for Sophie to adjust to us — and us to her. Soon, it was us she waited for from our front windows. She slept through the night now, curled up on her giant dog bed (a gift from my smitten parents) with the blanket that had made the cross-country journey with her.
But sometimes, we weren’t sure what we’d taken on. Initially shy, Sophie began to exhibit aggressive behavior. Sweet and docile with us, she tried to bite a pet sitter. She barked and bared her teeth at the contractors who were working on our basement. We enrolled her in dog training, and she lunged repeatedly at a wriggly young spaniel puppy.
We phoned Judy at Dandelion, asking for advice: "It's post-traumatic stress," she said. I combed dog-behavior message boards and looked into animal behaviorists. One trainer suggested that her "fear aggression" might be at least partially stemming from ill health, so at the end of December, we started her heartworm treatment.
After her initial shot, Sophie was put on the steroid prednisone and several antibiotics. And, she wasn’t allowed to exercise — even her potty breaks had to be five minutes or less. Anything longer could raise her heart rate and enable the dead worms to break loose and land in her lungs — potentially killing her.
With no exercise and steroids in her system, Sophie’s aggressive behavior continued — and even worsened. After she was permitted longer periods of exercise, we tried taking her to an off-leash dog park — and quickly re-leashed her as she attacked a yellow lab. My youngest brother drove up from California to visit, and Sophie bit him on the lower leg when he turned his back. I was mortified, frustrated — and angry.
'When is this going to end?'
I was reaching my breaking point in mid-January, when Steve and I went away for a weekend. We left Sophie in the care of our vet, and when we got her home, she had a raging case of diarrhea. We learned that in addition to the heartworms, she had hookworms, whipworms, ringworms and tapeworms — parasites that had likely incubated in her system following the storm. “When is this going to end?” I asked the veterinarian. “Hang in there,” she urged. “You’re doing a good thing.”
Sophie's "quiet period" ended, and we were eager to get her better socialized. I contacted Off Leash Adventures, a local company that took dogs out for romps during the workweek. The owner, Tamara Stanley, came over to meet Sophie, who promptly tried to bite her and then glared from her dog bed.
Although Sophie was still too aggressive to go out with her group, Tamara took pity on me. “You’re in over your head,” she wrote in an e-mail. “But I know someone who can help.” She pointed me to Ewe-topia, a dog-training facility in rural Roy, Wash. Although training champion sheep-herding dogs is their main business, Joe Kapelos and his wife, Linda Leeman, also help reset problem dogs.
I’m not a big believer in overnight miracles, but after just one session, Sophie was a different dog. Joe, who trained and handled sentry dogs in the Air Force, takes a tough-love approach to dog training — choke chain and all. “If a problem dog was running in a pack, the pack leader wouldn’t give him doggie Prozac,” says Joe. “The pack leader would say: ‘Straighten up, or we’ll kill you, or run you out of the pack.’”
Joe and his assistant Becky pushed Sophie to the breaking point — she reared up on her hind legs, teeth bared — and then corrected her. And after that harrowing session, Sophie got in the ring with a flock of sheep. She was tentative at first, throwing Steve and I an “are you kidding me?” look, but then those herding instincts kicked in. And so, it seems, did her confidence.
By the time spring rolled around, Sophie was a happy, loving, playful dog. She conquered her understandable fear of the water, and went bounding after tennis balls in the Sammamish River. Slowly, we started to have visitors over — my brother braved two repeat (and bite-free) visits. Sophie became a regular at the dog park, and was even cleared to go on off-leash adventures led by Tamara, who is still amazed at the change.
Things aren’t perfect. Sometimes, Sophie will nip a dog or bare her teeth at an overeager puppy that doesn’t yet understand dog-park etiquette. A return visit to Joe is probably in order.
Animal situation still dire
And things are far from perfect in Sophie’s hometown. Anne Bell, the owner of the New Orleans-based Southern Animal Foundation (SAF) clinic, where Sophie was initially treated, says the animal problem in the entire Gulf region is still acute: “The numbers (of homeless animals) are growing exponentially because they’re reproducing.”
The shelters in the Gulf region remain crowded to the breaking point. At the Terrebonne Parish shelter in Houma, La., 152 adoptable kittens were euthanized in June alone, said Bell.
“There’s just nowhere for them to go,” she says.
Bell’s daughter, Elizabeth Sprang, the office manager at SAF, says that the areas outside of New Orleans are perhaps even worse off: “People forget that New Orleans did not receive a direct hit,” she says. “There are thousands of animals in Bay St. Louis and Waveland that need homes desperately. Thousands.”
Dandelion is still taking in animals left homeless from the hurricane — as are shelters all around the country. And organizations, like Kanab, Utah-based Best Friends Animal Sanctuary are working furiously to try and reunite pets who need homes with their original owners.
As for Sophie, she and I are both a long ways from where we lived a year ago. But we're both adjusting to our new lives — together, we are home.
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