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Pet rescues, reunions and regrets

At least one happy ending has emerged from Hurricane Katrina's wreckage.

Bill Harris of Slidell, La., trapped in his home for three days by rising floodwaters, stood on a chair with his beloved Miss Kitty in one arm and a two-way radio in the other, desperately calling for help. When he was finally rescued, he had to be taken immediately to the hospital and Miss Kitty was left behind.

Alerted to the cat’s situation by an MSNBC crew, Noah’s Wish volunteers went in search of her. Several days later, they finally trapped a cat matching the description Harris gave. The two were reunited Friday at Forest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Miss., where Harris underwent surgery.

More such reunions are likely, thanks to the efforts of animal welfare organizations, dog clubs, and corporate and private donations.

“We’re holding all the animals for 30 days because it’s going to take that long for some of these people to connect with us,” says Terri Crisp, founder and director of Noah’s Wish. “The state is only requiring that they be held for 15 days, but we always give people more than enough time, and that’s because so many people have had to move so far out of the area to find a place to live. With the challenges that we’ve had with gasoline and with phones, we really need to give people the extra time.”

Almost a third of the 506 animals now in their Slidell shelter have been identified, Crisp says. Volunteers post notices on properties to let people know what animals were taken from the location and where to come to identify them and make arrangements for short-term or long-term care. Some animals have been reclaimed and those available for adoption have been moved to other shelters.

In New Orleans, Best Friends Animal Society is rescuing 50 to 80 animals each day and taking them to St. Francis Animal Sanctuary in Tylertown, Miss., just across the border from Louisiana. The sanctuary was struggling in the aftermath of the storm.

Searching via the Web

Other organizations, including the American Kennel Club and, serve as communications resources for rescuers, people who have lost animals, and potential volunteers. The AKC’s Companion Animal Recovery organization set up a donations exchange database on its Web site where people can list resources, equipment and offers of transportation or foster homes. People in need of assistance can search the database by state. At, hurricane victims can post the locations of their pets so rescuers can try to find them and search descriptions and photos of found animals. Volunteers can post offers of foster care or other help.

Donations of supplies from both corporations and individuals have been overwhelming, says veterinarian Rebecca Adcock, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Veterinary Medical Association who is based at the shelter operated by Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge, which holds almost 1,300 animals of all kinds. “We’re probably going to be sharing some of the things we’ve received with other shelters in the area who still have needs,” she says. Crisp says Noah’s Wish is also awash in supplies.

“We’ve gotten tons of dog food, cat food, cat litter. We’ve gotten lots of collars and leashes and bowls and all those kinds of items that we’ll be giving out to people as they reclaim their animals, so when they have them back in their care, they’re going to have everything they need to continue to take care of them,” she says.

Volunteer burnout

Besides monetary contributions to support what is sure to be a long-term effort to find, shelter, reunite and place animals, two of the greatest needs are for trained animal handlers who can give a break to the first responders and for people who can foster or adopt animals outside the hurricane-stricken area.

“The problem we’re facing right now is volunteer burnout,” Adcock says. “These people have been on duty for 18 hours a day, every day since the storm hit and the shelter opened, and we’ve got a lot of people who are tired. We’ve had a wonderful outpouring of support from the local community and from veterinarians and people all over the country who want to come in and help us with this shelter. But we still are experiencing a shortage of trained animal handlers to come in and help us with the day-to-day care of these animals. So that’s probably the biggest need right now is for those volunteers.”

Rescue groups outside the Gulf Coast are looking for people in their areas who can foster or adopt the animals they have on hand so they can take in animals being relocated. “We are doing a pet adopt-athon this weekend and are hoping that many residents will come forward to adopt a cat, thereby making room for cats coming in from the South,” says Louise Holton, founder of Alley Cat Rescue in Mount Rainier, Md.

Adcock expects it will take a month to a month and a half to help displaced people find more comfortable housing for their pets until they can get back on their feet and into homes of their own. “We’ve instituted a foster program now, so things are looking up in the Baton Rouge area for our shelter,” she says. “We’re trying to help them find places where their pets can be in a better home environment and get some of them out of the shelter facilities, so we feel a bit like we’ve turned the corner.”

For too many animals, though, there probably won’t be a happy ending, despite all the efforts being made to save them.

“I think there still exist in New Orleans probably 500 pets for every one in a shelter now,” Adcock says. “That tears our heart out every day to know there are that many down there, and there is no agency in the country that can solve that problem.”