Rescue! Hope for New Orleans’ Cats and Dogs
The Satya Interview with
Jane Garrison in New
Photo courtesy of HSUS
Help Protect Your Entire Family
Support the Pets Evacuation and
Transportation Standards Act
For many of us, one of the hardest things to imagine is losing
a member of our family during a disaster. More specifically,
the thought of having to abandon a loved one because they are
to be rescued is unthinkable. Thousands of hurricane survivors
hanging onto their companion animals were forced by emergency
workers to leave them behind. Thousands of cats and dogs abandoned
recent hurricanes either perished waiting for their families
to come home or remain displaced in shelters and foster homes
the States. Only a small percentage have been reunited with their
To address this preventable catastrophe in the future, the Humane
Society of the U.S. is supporting the Pets Evacuation and Transportation
H.R. 3858 (PETS Act). The act requires state and local authorities to
include pets and service animals in their disaster evacuation plans.
Help prevent thousands of animals from suffering and even death during the
next major disaster. Simply ask your U.S. Representative to support this bill,
pets_act_house/ to take action.—K.A.M.
Meet Jane Garrison. A veteran
animal activist, Jane coordinated search and rescue efforts for animals
after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Thousands of residents were
separated from their companion animals, either forcibly or because
shelters would not accept people with their animals. Many left their
dogs and cats locked in their houses, with food and water, never expecting
they wouldn’t be allowed to return home for weeks.
For the six weeks following Katrina, Garrison and legions of volunteers trudged
or floated through the watery streets, breaking into mud-caked houses, rescuing
the cats and dogs who survived the catastrophe, and attempting to reunite them
with their families.
On October 11th, a month and a half after the storm, Catherine Clyne spoke with
Jane Garrison about the grassroots and national efforts of animal rescuers, future
policies, and the animals being found alive—still.
In what capacity were you working in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina?
I coordinated the search and rescue efforts for the last six weeks in New Orleans.
I was coordinating the lists—HSUS, Petfinder.com and some other groups
had received over 6,000 calls of people whose animals were trapped inside their
homes. I sectioned off the city and coordinated where the teams went.
When I first got there, it was really unorganized. They would send you to one
address, then to another that was clear across the city. So I broke the city
into 35 sections, started coordinating the teams, and set up a command center
where we could run a dispatch out of. An HSUS trailer showed up and I quickly
commandeered it for the dispatch center. I stayed up to three or four in the
morning each day, coordinating where we were going the next day, printing out
maps and addresses. Then I held a 5:30 morning meeting each day and gave everyone
their assignments. Once they were on the road, I would do search and rescue as
That entailed breaking into homes—prying open the door with a crowbar or
smashing in windows. A lot of houses had bars over the doors and windows, so
we had to push in air conditioner units and climb through. The homes were completely
covered in mud, water-logged, many with water still in them; they were very dark,
with windows boarded up, and no electricity. In looking for clues—paw prints,
feces, etc.—we searched under beds, in attics and closets. Once we saw
a sign that an animal could possibly still be in there, it was encouraging. Once
we found the animals, we would take them out of the house and transfer them to
our temporary shelter, with the hopes of reuniting them with their family.
A lot of people feel these animals were left behind because people didn’t
care about them, but that is not really the case. These animals were left behind
because people were forced to evacuate, many of them at gunpoint. They had no
choice. People had nowhere to go, they were forced to leave, and forced to leave
their animals behind. Most of them never dreamed they’d be out of their
homes for six to seven weeks. So that was the other problem: they left enough
food and water for a few days, never imagining it would be that long.
About how many animals have been rescued out of New Orleans?
Roughly, what percentage of them have been reunited with their humans?
Ah. [Sigh.] That is a very good question. Clearly not enough, something like
ten percent. I don’t know what the final number is right now.
Do you have any idea how many are still out there?
On the streets there are thousands of animals, easily. About four or five days
into the rescue mission, I started noticing that the animals on the streets started
looking really bad—extremely malnourished, dehydrated. I found 11 dead
cats on a street one day, and I thought, “This is ridiculous. We’re
focusing on the animals left in houses—what about these animals on the
street?” There’s no food and water availability; so I decided to
coordinate a food and water mission as well. I started setting up people to go
and do food and water drops throughout the city, and within three days, the population
quickly turned around. The animals started looking healthier; it was amazing
to watch that right before my eyes. There are still thousands of animals on the
New Orleans has always had a stray animal issue; they’ve always had a very
big feral cat population, and they’ve had very good feral cat people, feeding
and spay/neutering them. But now you couple that with all the animals who escaped
from their homes, doors and widows blew open; rescuers who went into homes and
couldn’t find animals left doors open because we certainly weren’t
going to trap them again.
I understand that the policy was to keep rescued animals as near to their
point of origin as possible, hoping that their humans would return for them.
the situation now?
In the beginning, for the first two weeks, the state veterinarian would not allow
animals to be shipped out of Louisiana. She soon learned that she had to change
that policy because there really wasn’t any place in Louisiana to hold
9,000 animals. We would try to hold them for a few days to give people time to
find them, but then most were shipped to other shelters. The ones we are rescuing
now are being sent to Best Friends’ temporary shelter in Tyler Town, Mississippi.
You know, in a perfect situation we would try to keep these animals close to
where their families are, but we are finding a lot of people are not coming back.
Consider this: without consulting those of us on the ground who were still finding
animals, the state veterinarian picked October 1st as the date after which no
animal could possibly still be alive. So since that date, HSUS stopped rescuing.
I refused to stop this rescue mission as long as there were animals in need.
In just a few weeks we have rescued over 300 animals. Out of that 300, we have
only received 30 or 40 phone calls from people who got our notices on their doors.
The city has opened, so the people who haven’t called are either not back,
can’t get back, or have no reason to come back.
How did you get involved in the search and rescue efforts?
I have done disaster rescue before. I was certified with United Animal Nations
years ago. And when this hurricane hit, I could not stop thinking about these
animals trapped in homes. It was really driving me crazy. I couldn’t sleep.
I just had this very strong desire to go there and help. I spoke with Wayne Pacelle
of HSUS and he agreed that we should go down and see what we could do. So I went
and it was pretty obvious to me that some of the local authorities were really
in over their heads. They weren’t able to handle a rescue operation of
this magnitude. For the first week or two, I tried to really work within their
guidelines, but it was very frustrating because there were lots of volunteers
and I found that there was so much more to be done. So I just stepped up to the
plate and started coordinating it on my own.
So you’re back at home now?
I had to come back because I got a really bad feral cat bite. We had told people, ‘No
feral cats. Only bring in animals rescued from homes or on the street who come
up to you.’ There was just no place to put them, they would risk being
euthanized at shelters they were sent to, and that’s not what this was
about. Someone brought in a feral cat and must have transferred the cat into
a regular carrier—somebody had written ‘Call Alley Cat Allies’ on
it. So I told the volunteer, ‘Don’t open that carrier, I think that
cat is feral.’ And this girl was like, ‘No, I’m so good with
feral cats.’ (There’s no such thing as being “good” with
feral cats except just leaving them alone.) She opened the carrier and this cat
literally climbed up her arms and was freaking out. I knew that if the cat got
away, where we were, the cat would never have found food or water. So I leaned
down to try to grab the cat, of course, and ended up being very badly bit. I
got a staph infection.
Do you think if people were allowed to bring their animals when they evacuated,
things would have been better?
Oh, definitely. Without a doubt, thousands of people who called us would have
their animals. But as it is, thousands of animals died lonely deaths behind closed
doors, wondering when their families were coming back. This operation would have
been so much easier if people were allowed to go back home. The breaking of the
levee caused more problems. If it was “just” the hurricane, people
would have been allowed back fairly quickly. But the flood changed everything.
I actually only saw a handful of animals that died directly from the storm. The
majority of the animals I saw died from dehydration and starvation. It was so
heart-wrenching. The animals made it through the storm and the only reason they
didn’t live was because we didn’t have enough people on the ground
to go into all the houses. A lot of mixed messages were being sent to potential
rescuers. Animal protection groups were telling people not to come, that there
were enough people. But those of us on the ground were shouting, “No, we
One day in particular I went into 25 homes and in each home the animals were
dead—and not from the flooding. All I kept thinking was that these animals
could have been saved. That was the hardest thing. These were not humane and
Some activists are very angry with people who left their companion animals behind.
What are your thoughts on this?
I do not feel angry at these people. Before I went down to New Orleans I thought, “How
could these people leave their animals behind?” Yet, after being on the
ground and talking with them, we saw that they didn’t leave these animals
because they didn’t love them or didn’t care. People were waiting
outside our trailer begging us to go get their animals. They left them because
they truly did not have a choice. People left enormous amounts of food and water,
put their animals as high in the house as they could. Unfortunately, this was
not always best. Volunteers would spray-paint ‘no animals found’ because
they would not look in the attic. A week later, the animals would be found dead.
The reality is many people died in this storm because they wouldn’t leave
their animals. Rescuers have gone into houses and found dead people with their
animals alive next to them. The government and the disaster agencies are part
of the problem. They need to encourage and allow people to bring their companion
What can people do to help?
We are quickly moving through the remaining addresses on our list but there are
lots of animals on the streets who need to be rescued. We are now preparing for
phase two of this mission and plan to run this until at least the end of November.
We need volunteers for three key teams: to feed and water animals on the street
until they can be rescued; comb the streets to rescue animals who are called
into our dispatch as “animals in need”; and a team of animal control
officers and vets and vet techs to trap the remaining animals.
We hope to work with national and local rescue groups. We are fortunate to have
secured a very experienced dog trapper who will train some of our key people.
No experience is necessary for those who want to volunteer for the food and water
team. For those who can’t make it to New Orleans, we are in desperate need
of donations of dog and cat food, supplies and funds.
I also encourage people to watch the bill that HSUS is working on, which would
force authorities to take animals during disasters [see sidebar].
What are some of the lessons learned?
First of all, we need a unified disaster rescue team. There is no question about
it. I am willing to put whatever time and energy is needed to make sure that
all these groups are on the same page when a disaster hits. There is not one
group that is organized enough to handle a disaster of this magnitude.
The government needs to change their policy about evacuating with animals. Thousands
of animals would have been saved. And the shelters need to become animal-friendly.
And if not, the animal protection community has to organize to set up animal
shelters right next to them, so FEMA can tell people that they can bring their
animals and there will be a safe place for them right next door.
Finally, never underestimate an animal’s will to live. We found animals
that had such wills to survive. It was heartwarming. I rescued a dog off a roof
who had been up there for 17 days. He weighed 40 pounds when he should have weighed
95. He had no access to food, water or shade—it was 100 degrees there.
When pulling the air conditioners from the sides of homes, dogs literally jumped
out and covered our faces with kisses. As many bad situations down there and
images I am sure will haunt me forever, the images of the animals who were so
grateful, so thankful, will help keep us going for all disasters to come.
To learn how to help the animals of New Orleans, visit www.animalrescueneworleans.com.
To volunteer, contact Brenda at firstname.lastname@example.org or (314) 863-9445; for
supplies or monetary donations, contact Pricilla at Pgargalis@yahoo.com.