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Shaggy survivors hanging on after Katrina

More than two months after Hurricane Katrina blew in, animals are still being found alive in New Orleans, pulled out of attics and from beneath flooring or off of the streets, where they’ve been surviving on sheer will and the kindness of strangers who leave food for them.

Some are little more than skin wrapped around bones. Starving, dehydrated and depressed, they still greet people trustingly, perhaps somehow recognizing that they represent salvation from their utterly bewildering circumstances.

In the past month, volunteers with Animal Rescue New Orleans, run by Jane Garrison of Charleston, S.C., have rescued more than 400 animals, delivering them to the Best Friends animal shelter on the grounds of Saint Francis Animal Sanctuary in Tylertown, Miss. Garrison’s crew sets out food and water around the city to keep animals alive until they can be coaxed into custody or humanely trapped. The team also responds to phone calls reporting animals that are trapped.

Silver was one of those pets. Garrison says they received a call from a construction worker whose company had been contracted to gut a house.

'Like a skeleton with skin'

“When they went in there, they found this sweet little cat that couldn’t even move,” she says. “She was lying in her own urine, skin and bones, just like a skeleton with skin. She had a collar around her neck with the name Silver and a phone number. We took her to the animal hospital, and I tried to call that number. I couldn’t get through, so I tracked down the construction company’s main office and found out who owned that house. He was completely speechless on the phone; he couldn’t believe she was alive.”

At last report, Silver was getting intravenous antibiotics and fluids, but wasn’t yet eating.

The same week, a woman called to report that every time she went back to her apartment building, there was still a dog there that had been left behind. She would give the dog what food and water she could find, but didn’t know what to do with him otherwise until she saw one of Garrison’s flyers.

“We went there, and we found this little Chihuahua hiding under the blankets in this apartment,” Garrison says. “He was very frightened, very depressed, extremely thin, of course, filled with fleas, and very dehydrated and hungry. While we were there, we started hearing meowing. We pulled down the stairs to the attic, went up there, and found a tabby cat still alive.”

At last count, the Best Friends shelter held 320 dogs and 154 cats, all waiting to be placed in foster homes across the country. They’re photographed and information about them and where they go is carefully recorded so they can be easily tracked if and when their owners come in search of them.

Up for adoption

No one knows yet how many people and animals have been reunited. At Best Friends, there have been only 112 such reunions so far. It’s likely that a number of pets will be adopted into new homes, says Michael Mountain, president of Best Friends Animal Society.

“I think what’s going to happen is there are a lot of people who really would like to reunite, but they find themselves in a different part of the country now, they don’t have a job, they’re living with family," he says, "and … for many people life will move on and they’ll be grateful for the fact that somebody else has got Fluffy or Fido.”

Most shelters that have taken in Katrina pets are placing them in foster homes until Dec. 31, to give owners as much time as possible to find and claim them. After that, they’ll be made available for adoption.

For some, the single most important thing is getting back together with their dog or cat. One woman was so distraught by the loss of her cat that she had to be hospitalized in intensive care. “They found the kitty, and it’s given her new life,” Mountain says.

A man's best friend

Then he recounts the story of a Vietnam veteran, a double amputee, who had hung onto a tree with his dog, an apricot standard Poodle named Morgan Le Fay, after the Arthurian enchantress. Eventually, he managed to make it onto the roof of his house, with the dog, but when he was evacuated by helicopter, he was forced to leave Morgan behind.

“By good fortune, we picked up the dog later, but had no idea where he was,” Mountain says. “Volunteers around the country started e-mailing each other and doing searches and they discovered that the guy was at a hospital in Miami, Fla., so a couple of them drove the dog down there. For this guy, this dog is really all he has.”

Another resourceful Vietnam veteran, Gary Karcher, shared his home in New Orleans with a young Rottweiler and a pair of Dachshunds. Deciding after the flooding that he had to try to make his way to the VA hospital and knowing he didn’t have any way of bringing the dogs with him, he emptied his water heater, put food everywhere, and wrote out a message about his Rottweiler’s need for eye medication.

“He put this in a bottle to keep it safe from the water and tied the bottle around the dog’s neck, along with the eye medication,” Mountain says. “A couple of days later, we picked up the Rottweiler and the Dachshunds, which had gotten outdoors, separately, not knowing they had anything to do with each other.”

Karcher was tracked down to a camp in Oklahoma and notified that his Rottweiler was safe. He asked if by chance his Dachshunds had been rescued as well. The reunion of the four has been hampered, however, by FEMA’s no-pets policy.

“Gary is going to be getting or may already have a mobile home from FEMA,” Mountain says, “but they have one of those no-pets rules, so he can’t take the dogs back at this point. We’ll be hanging onto his dogs until he can get out of the trailer and make other arrangements. Will we be sticking to the three-months-foster-and-then-adoption rule? In this case, absolutely not. We’ll hold the dogs for as long as it takes for Gary to be in a position to take them back.”

Keeping people and their pets united

It’s a cliché that every cloud has a silver lining. If that’s true, Katrina’s cloud ought to be made entirely of sterling silver.

The response to hurricanes Rita and Wilma, which closely followed Katrina, saw better coordination between agencies to allow for evacuation with pets. Both Texas and Florida set up shelters that permitted pets.

And Congressmen Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) have introduced legislation to ensure that in any future disasters people will not be separated from their pets.

“There are a lot of issues to be worked out, but one of the big things we’ve seen from Katrina is that people will not evacuate when they can’t take their pets,” says veterinarian Rebecca Adcock, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Veterinary Medical Association. “We can probably attribute a lot of loss of life, human and animal, to that fact and we need to take that into account.”