The last time he had seen Sassy, his 11-year-old Lhasa apso, Craig Peel was fleeing flood-ravaged New Orleans, a journey that included a plane ride to Washington, where he took up shelter at the D.C. Armory.
For nearly a month, Peel, 76, has yearned for the dog he left with a friend in his old neighborhood. He told anyone and everyone he met at the armory that Sassy was his only relative.
Yesterday, thanks to the enterprise of a volunteer at the armory and a team of animal rescue workers that traveled to the Gulf Coast, Peel got his wish.
After a 1,500-mile trip from New Orleans, a Washington Animal Rescue League van delivered Sassy and 17 other canine and feline evacuees to the league's Northeast headquarters yesterday afternoon, where Peel was reunited with the dog.
Except for fleas and a cataract, Sassy was her usual sprightly self, licking her owner's face and nestling in his lap. "Got my baby back," Peel said, smiling as he hobbled behind her, leaning on a walker.
In the blur of the recent past, Peel cannot recall when he left New Orleans. He was in the city during Hurricane Katrina, remaining with Sassy in his apartment in a senior citizens complex near the French Quarter.
In the days after the storm, he said, he survived on a few gallons of water and canned food. He said he always made sure to take Sassy for her daily walks, even though it meant that he had to trudge up and down five flights of stairs in the dark because there was no electricity to power the elevator.
On several occasions, he said, he encountered police officers and members of the National Guard, who encouraged him to evacuate. He resisted, fearing it would mean giving up his dog.
‘The only family I have left’
Then he ran into a longtime friend from the neighborhood, Ginger Lucci, who said she was not leaving New Orleans and offered to board Sassy along with her three dogs. Running out of food and water, Peel agreed to leave Sassy behind.
"He was so sad when he dropped her off," said Lucci, 55, speaking yesterday by telephone from her French Quarter home, where she has remained since the hurricane.
An ambulance took Peel to the New Orleans Convention Center, and he was later transported to the airport and flown to Washington. A few days after arriving at the armory, he stationed himself in his wheelchair outside the entrance, holding up a sign that read "America's Most Wanted: Sassy Peel."
He met Anne Holbrook, a volunteer, who gave him forms that included questions about missing relatives. "He said, 'Yes, my dog Sassy, and that's the only family I have left in the world,' " Holbrook said.
After Peel explained where he had left the dog, Holbrook posted photographs of Sassy and pleas for help on the Internet. She received an e-mail from someone alerting her to an article in a San Diego newspaper referring to a woman named Ginger who had stayed behind in the French Quarter.
‘Been through hell’
Holbrook could not find a phone number for Lucci but reached someone else quoted in the article, Ott Howell, who lived a few blocks from Lucci and promised to relay a message.
Scotlund Haisley, executive director of the Washington Animal Rescue League, learned of Sassy's location last week while he was preparing to lead a team to New Orleans.
Haisley reached Lucci's front door late Sunday afternoon, where he found her and a friend drinking champagne. "They looked like they had been through hell, but they were making the best of it," Haisley said.
Peel said he plans to stay at the armory for the next couple of days, perhaps longer, while Sassy stays in a temporary shelter. After that, Peel is not sure where he will go, except it won't be New Orleans, his home for 43 years.
It's a painful truth, one that he said is ameliorated by another: He has his Sassy back. "Where she belongs," he said, following as she nosed around her new world.