updated 9/12/2005 9:44:05 AM ET 2005-09-12T13:44:05

The first major airlift of dogs from the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast left Louisiana on Sunday, carrying about 80 pets to new temporary homes in California.

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The Continental Airlines flight from Baton Rouge, La., was chartered for about $50,000 by Texas oil tycoon Boone Pickens and his wife, Madeleine, in a movement dubbed “Operation Pet Lift.”

Some dogs were placed in cages in the cargo section while others rode in the passenger cabin, where they barked and wagged their tails.

“They’d been in cages far too long. We felt like they needed to be free so they sat on our laps, and we played with them the whole way,” said Christine Penrod, Madeleine Pickens’ sister, who accompanied the animals on the flight.

About half the dogs were headed for San Diego, with the rest bound for San Francisco. Sunday’s move was organized by PetRelocation.com, based in Austin, Texas.

“The goal was to help rescue 200 dogs,” Pickens’ spokesman Jay Rosser said. “They’re overjoyed that they were able to rescue 80, but clearly disappointed and dismayed at the bureaucracy, which prevented them from taking the full 200.”

Organizers complained that some legal requirements were impractical, such as waiting out a 30-day quarantine before transporting the animals.

Thousands of pets left homeless
Kelly Harrington, director of disaster response services for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said a makeshift shelter for up to several thousand dogs had been set up at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, La., about 45 miles northwest of New Orleans.

She hoped additional dogs would be flown out in the coming days, but said the effort was taking time.

“Every animal has to be vet checked, vaccinated and microchipped ... so we can track these animals in case an owner does find them,” Harrington said.

Petfinder.com was setting up a database of pet pictures to help reunite owners with lost animals.

Chaotic scene, logistical nightmare
Andrew Rowan, executive vice president of operations for the Humane Society United States, said animals must be moved out of the Gonzales facility quickly to make room for “maybe 50,000 or more dogs and cats in New Orleans that need to be rescued.”

“There are vans and cars and trucks all over the place,” he said. “Dogs are barking, cats are meowing. It’s a tremendous logistical operation to provide the care that these animals need.”

The Humane Society’s Dave Pauli, director of the Gonzales facility, said 200 animals were shipped out Sunday by truck to Houston, but rescue teams expected to bring in about 300 more in the afternoon.

About 200 animals have been reunited with their owners at the facility.

“That’s what keeps us going,” Pauli said. “Every one of them brings a tear to your eyes and makes these sleepless nights worth it.”

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