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November 2005
To The Rescue! Hope for New Orleans’ Cats and Dogs
The Satya Interview with Jane Garrison

 

Jane Garrison in New Orleans.
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 not allowed 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 by the recent hurricanes either perished waiting for their families to come home or remain displaced in shelters and foster homes throughout the States. Only a small percentage have been reunited with their human families.

To address this preventable catastrophe in the future, the Humane Society of the U.S. is supporting the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, 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, or visit https://community.hsus.org/campaign/
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 well.

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?
Over 9,000.

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 streets.

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. What’s 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 need more!”

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 quick deaths.

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 animals.

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 info@kinshipcircle.org or (314) 863-9445; for supplies or monetary donations, contact Pricilla at Pgargalis@yahoo.com.

 


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