IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Strays of hope

Rescue shelters in New Orleans are acting like Noah's arks for marooned pets even two weeks after the storm.
Two rescued dogs
Two rescued dogsCarol Guzy / TWP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Suffer the pooches, and the other abandoned creatures of the storm.

They are listless, just lethargic. Or they are scared, if quivering is any measure. And the really noisy ones are barking ferociously, like the bodacious brown pit-bull-looking thing who fixes his gaze on a visitor and snarls so intensely one can imagine him warning, "Get me outta here, or else!"

Paula Atzenhoffer is examining them all, and holding a tissue to her nose -- not from the overpowering stench of these hundreds upon hundreds of pets, but because she's crying. She's come here to the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in search of her canine brood.

The last she saw of them was that awful Friday after Katrina. The police who came to rescue Atzenhoffer and her 13-year-old grandson Charles from the streets of New Orleans made them leave their beloved dogs behind: Scout the sheltie, Datsun the dachshund and the dean of this canine crew, a Boston terrier named Pepe Le Pew. Three pampered pets left to fend for themselves.

Atzenhoffer carries her doggy photo album to this emergency outdoor animal shelter. It will help her identify her dogs and prove ownership, should she find them as she walks from cage to cage amid the thick, hot air stirred by hundreds of portable fans. Of the three, Atzenhoffer's especially worried about Pepe.

"Pepe had surgery three months ago, kidney stones. And he has seizures," she explains delicately, wiping her eyes. "They're all such sweethearts. We dress them up for Halloween." In one photo they're each wearing a Santa hat. "These dogs are like our children."

Scenes of desperation
This reality is playing out for hundreds of other pet owners each day at this Noah's ark of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, and on the streets of New Orleans and other towns along the Gulf, where pets are part of the ongoing evacuation even two weeks after the storm. And they are part of the trauma many people surely still suffer. Who can forget the little boy who cried so mightily that he threw up when rescuers wrenched from his arms his dog named Snowball?

"People were staying because they wouldn't leave their animals," says Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which runs the Lamar-Dixon operation.

So, as rescue boats ply the rivery streets of New Orleans each day to find humans, so too do pet rescue boats search for marooned pets. Sometimes animals and their owners are found together. Sometimes the animals are found alone and sick from drinking fetid, contaminated street water.

They are brought here to Lamar-Dixon, in a small town between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. At its busiest, in the days after the storm, this facility held up to 2,000 dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and horses, along with pet mice, rats, frogs and pythons, even a boa stored inside a plastic bin wrapped with duct tape, lest the creature escape and eat some of the hamsters and ferrets nearby. A similar facility, at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, is housing more than a thousand pets. Rene Bafalis, spokeswoman for the national Humane Society, says roughly 60 percent of New Orleans residents were pet owners.

Hundreds more pets arrive at Lamar-Dixon each day, while similar numbers are dispatched to smaller shelters for longer-term care. The numbers have been so overwhelming that the Humane Society is trying to keep it to 1,300, to better offer proper interim care of ailments such as canine dysentery, infections, cuts, malnutrition and dehydration. With perhaps 50 percent of New Orleans still under water, the flood of pets is not expected to abate until the search-and-rescue operation is complete.

Instead of Noah, there are some 450 workers here: vets and staffers from the national and local Humane Society groups, as well as the U.S. Public Health Service and

FEMA, along with volunteer vets and ordinary people. There have been about 200 reunions here since the center opened two days after Katrina struck, Pacelle says.

Searching for hope
Each day hundreds of people -- old, young, singles, families, of all hues -- arrive with hope of good news. They register, write down descriptions of their pets, whether they were wearing an identification collar, perhaps even offer photos. Then they begin their search, coursing up and down the lanes of small kennels and large crates searching for their companions. They share anecdotes. They share horror stories, like the uncorroborated rumor that police in a nearby parish shot dogs on the streets.

Bafalis described one measure of how badly these animals want to be found. To gain entry to a house with a barking dog, rescuers pulled out an air conditioning unit and a dog came flying out, jumping into the arms of a rescuer.

Not all pet owners simply left their animals behind, she says. In some cases, "people had taken large bags of dog food and ripped them open before they left."

Hear the tale of the potbellied pig. Rescuers found it inside a home, in its own bedroom, says Bafalis:

"There were pig murals on the wall and family photos with the pig."

Peter Allnet, Atzenhoffer's son, tries to explain how it is that people become so attached to animals. "They have their own personalities," says Allnet, a Jaguar mechanic. "He knows the kids' names," Allnet says of Pepe, adding that the dogs are so close they have to be transported to the groomer in the same carrier, lest a righteous ruckus will break out. "They're like brothers," he says, shrugging.

But it is looking hopeless. Atzenhoffer, of Slidell, La., is forlorn. She and her grandson have walked from cage to cage for more than an hour, finding no Pepe, Scout or Datsun. It's depressing, and she's already depressed. She's been to counseling for the horrors she witnessed on the streets during the flood. She says Charles, her grandson, probably needs some help too. Her counselor says Charles "might be just pushing it all back," back to the back of his mind where it won't haunt him.

The day Katrina struck, she gathered Charles with the dogs at the hotel she manages. But flooding forced them out after three days. They ended up on a street corner. "Rats were running around," says Atzenhoffer, tossing away the memory with a shake of her head.

And a very ill man died right in front of them -- a man whose name they did not know but who had a dog named Rudy, a dachshund just like their Datsun. When the man died, Atzenhoffer decided to take care of his dog too. But they had to leave Rudy behind with their own dogs.

Suddenly, as Atzenhoffer is speaking, Charles comes racing with all his might, all red in the face and shouting, "Grandma! We found Pepe!"

They run to the end of the row, to a small kennel in a medical ward. Now Atzenhoffer's crying flat-out. She kisses Pepe through the cage, letting him lick her face.

"He's the old man. He's been with us a long time," says Allnet, who's choked up too. Charles is jockeying for a look, too happy to cry, though the news is not all good.

"He's going to need to go right back to a veterinary hospital, because he has some serious injuries," says Jodi Witte, a FEMA veterinary technician.

There are deep lacerations around the little terrier's neck. Later in the day, Atzenhoffer's private vet tells her that a large dog bit Pepe and apparently swung him from side to side, causing deep toothy gashes. And one of his eyes was scratched, which could lead to blindness.

But Pepe Le Pew will live. And Datsun, Scout and Rudy (as well as her daughter's missing dogs, Buddy and Brinkley) may yet be found, Atzenhoffer hopes.

"Well, I'll just have to make another trip tomorrow till we find everybody. They're not just animals. They're my babies," she says, carrying Pepe toward the parking lot in a white towel, like swaddling clothes.

Another family is arriving -- two adults, three small kids. They look tense, stressed. Atzenhoffer holds up her prize, her Pepe, and calls out to them: "There's hope!"