Image: Patrick Eppling and Dudley
David J. Phillip  /  AP
Patrick Eppling, left, walks his dog, Dudley, through the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in New Orleans on Sept. 15.
updated 9/16/2004 4:01:14 PM ET 2004-09-16T20:01:14

Before Hurricane Ivan was even ashore, the New Orleans Riverside Hilton had already gone to the dogs — and the cats, and the birds.

As Ivan was bearing down on the Big Easy, the lobby of the downtown hotel resembled less a storm shelter than an animal shelter. With 90 percent of its 1,616 rooms occupied by locals, the hotel suspended its pet ban as a service to the community, and the clicking of claws and ringing of barks echoed off the marble floors and sculpted walls.

Many people refuse to evacuate for hurricanes because shelters often won’t take pets. Christine Robert of nearby Metairie said she would have braved the storm at home if she hadn’t been allowed to bring her two whippets.

“It means everything in the world,” the kindergarten teacher said Wednesday as she walked Smokey and Given through the loading dock to do their business. “My dogs are definitely part of my family. ... It makes me feel a lot more comfortable.”

From shar-peis to shih tzus, highbred to Heinz 57, the hotel was teeming with furry friends. Throughout the hotel, blue signs with black paw prints indicated “Pet Area This Way.”

Robbie Giancontieri, 9, took pictures for a school science fair and counted over 50 different breeds — including three shih tzus being pushed around in a fancy English pram.

“The only thing we haven’t seen, and I’m thanking the Lord for this, is reptiles,” said his mother, Cathy, who brought her 8-month old maltese, Toby, to the hotel.

Hotel manager Fred Sawyers III figures about half the rooms have pets in them.

“I myself have three cats in my room,” he said. Hotel general manager Paul Buckley said the most exotic animal he’d seen was an African gray cockatiel.

People are being charged an extra $50 as a “cleanup fee,” but Sawyers said he hadn’t heard of too many serious accidents.

Beth Gonzalez of Gretna stood outside the hotel before lockdown as her toy poodle Mimi’s ears flapped in the growing breeze. Gonzalez was grateful for the gesture, but she wasn’t sure Mimi was enjoying the high life.

“She’s nervous,” Gonzalez said. “She’s never stayed at the Hilton.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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