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November 2005
DIY Animal Rescue
The Satya Interview with Andy Stepanian

 

Photos by Andy Stepanian

On September 22, three volunteers from the Animal Defense League of Long Island packed about 10,000 pounds of donated goods into a truck and headed down to the Gulf to aid in hurricane relief efforts. Their mission, according to their website, was to “fulfill the often overused and seldom applied activist mantra that the struggles for human and animal liberation are unilateral.” Before leaving, the ADL organized a concert featuring Victory Recording Artists The Sleeping, and the community warmly responded, bringing clothing, sheets, diapers, monetary donations, and other much-needed goods. The objective of the volunteers was to distribute the items among the various shelters and parishes surrounding New Orleans and then, on their way home, rescue as many abandoned animals that they could legally fit inside their truck to adopt out to loving homes in New York and Pennsylvania.

After distributing the donated goods and rescuing many animals, these tired and shocked volunteers made their way back home. One of the activists, Andy Stepanian, spoke with Maureen Wyse the day after he arrived back from the Gulf.

So, tell us about the trip.
We set out to address the human needs first and then bring suffering animals back. In Mississippi, we checked out 20 different places before we felt comfortable leaving our donations. Clothing was ending up in piles, not where people needed it. This became a reoccurring trend that we saw throughout the trip, and it wasn’t only about clothing and supplies, but also with every chain of command—everything was falling apart.

We finally found a Catholic church in Biloxi, Mississippi, that was partially supported by Oxfam. They had a tremendous community presence. Tons of people were coming in and out for food and medical relief—they had a triage center there. People were allowed to go in with a box and take whatever they needed to start getting back on their feet. We knew these were the right people to give the supplies to. They were really grateful. People were excited because we brought donations from companies like Moo Shoes and Etnies America, a skateboarding company. A lot of young folk were really excited and it was good to see them smiling.

We got the supplies and clothes out and we set off to get animals. The same logistical problems began unfolding. There was a heavy military presence and when we went into the city of Biloxi, gunfire broke out. I don’t think it was aimed at us but it was definitely a hairy situation for us to try and drive through. And there was a heavy sense of despair. I would say for as much as a mile inland from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, everything was destroyed.

What are some of the other logistical problems you saw?

There were certain institutions, for example the Red Cross, just throwing out clothing, literally by the tons. I saw a bulldozer push a pile of clothing twelve or thirteen feet high down the street in mud and debris, and throw it into a dumpster. We saw clothing strewn across parking lots and they would allow people to pick through them. With Rita approaching, with the wind and the rain, these piles of clothing should have been in boxes.

Did you visit any factory farms?
We first set out for Mississippi, knowing in advance of certain factory farms and that any remaining structures not affected by floodwaters containing farmed animals were probably there. Most of the wind devastation was in the state of Mississippi, while the high floodwaters happened in Louisiana and urban areas.

Who was coordinating farmed animal rescue?
When we first decided to do this, we were in touch with individuals from PETA, HSUS, Compassion Over Killing and Farm Sanctuary in the area. Right after the hurricane hit, they brought a total of 1,700 chickens to farm sanctuaries across the Northeast.

We found that a lot of factory farms had caught wind [no pun intended] that the hurricane was going to be bad. The USDA was present at the shelter set up by the HSUS and they told us that the farmers were told to get their animals out of there if they wanted to sustain their income from those animals. So they trucked a lot of the animals out, either to slaughterhouses or other facilities. When we got down there a week and a half later, a lot of these places were either a) empty, b) hit so hard that the buildings and the chickens were crushed, or c) the chickens who weren’t crushed had since died of starvation or thirst. It is eye-opening and alarming that the farmers had better warning to prepare and get their animals out of there, unlike a lot of families in lower income communities.

What did you see that you feel isn’t being covered?
When we entered Biloxi we got clearance to go through military check points into areas where the media was not being allowed. No one would be able to quantify the grief that was in the air and the inability of the hierarchy to address such a situation.

There were nursing homes in the Biloxi area where you would need clearance just to go towards them. The workers had evacuated and people were trapped in the nursing homes, some of them unable to take care of themselves. Members of the church wanted to feed them and they couldn’t because they couldn’t get past check points. Luckily enough, the same church affiliated with Oxfam came to an agreement with the Red Cross to take food past the military check points to those in need. That was a scary example of the countless people who were dying in front of us or were already dead because of bureaucracy.

We entered these communities and the smell was absolutely horrible. The smell was of decaying bodies—it wasn’t sewage run-off or anything like that. It was the smell of people dead inside houses, along with their dead animals. We would go past a house and spray-painted on the side would be, ‘one dead woman, two dead cats.’

There was definitely a sense of racism, sexism, a great deal of homophobia and acts of desperation as well.

How did you see racism, sexism and homophobia manifested?
Well, race and class are closely inter-twined. In the case of New Orleans, Biloxi, or Gulfport, it was low-income communities and communities of color that suffered most. Although I arrived two weeks after the storm, there were curfews and restrictions on movement. A general observation could be made that white people recover while black people loot.

One Christian talk radio show that was on frequently was “Cross Talk,” which drew a link between natural disasters and homosexuality and the occult. Basically they blamed the large homosexual community in New Orleans and Louisiana for the hurricane. This is a general sentiment that was picked up by mainstream media down there that was loosely affiliated with the Christian Right. And a lot of people were adhering to it—vehemently. Their anger was not just with the inadequate response or people and loved ones in their community dying. It became, ‘we need to blame somebody.’ ‘Why did this happen? Why did god do this to us? Oh, it’s because of homosexuals.’ It was very scary.

In a Buddhist temple in Biloxi, they were holding free feedings, opening up their space so people could sleep on the floors, and providing people with clothing. People were accepting it, but still calling them “filthy Vietnamese.”

I would regularly see sexism. I would often hear men who were part of the relief effort make statements like ‘we cant have “our” women smell/see those dead bodies,’ statements that support ideas that women are possessions or are weak. So racism, sexism and homophobia were all present.

What sort of obstacles did you encounter?
Everything was bureaucratic red tape—and that’s not to throw stones at any national organization. We had to file paperwork, get photos taken, and make sure vets saw each and every animal before we took them out. The last stop on our trip was the shelter at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, Louisiana, to work with the Humane Society because they have a little more leeway with the government when trying to rescue animals. We presented our nonprofit status, vet references and after a day or two, we got clearance as a rescue group. Once we became a rescue group, we were able to leave with animals.

It’s that slow creep at Gonzales and other shelters that prevents more animals from being rescued. There is only so much space to foster and take care of animals in these shelters and the space was entirely occupied. People weren’t going out to rescue animals that are still alive, still starving and waiting to be rescued.

What do you think is going to happen to all of the animals down there?
It’s inevitable that some animals will eventually end up in a shelter and then be killed, solely because homes cannot be found fast enough. This is going to happen with pit bulls in particular because of the large pit bull populace in New Orleans and they are hard to adopt out. I can imagine hundreds of pit bulls may be euthanized by the end of this ordeal.

There is an extraordinary disconnect between the needs of people, animals, the environment, and a general sense of care for one another. There are a lot of people who want to go down to do a charitable deed, but they are ostracizing others and failing to be compassionate or empathetic to the needs of others.

The media had at times scripted, staged acts of kindness going on. So that even though they were doing a good thing, their motivations were mixed—they were capitalizing off of them. We would see it all the time with television spots about the rescue of animals, yet that wasn’t how it was working. The animal was either already rescued or was used as a prop to say, ‘Oh look at this great work we’re doing, send us more donations.’ It was disheartening that people were taking time out to do that and not taking the time to ensure there were enough vets for the animals. It was disheartening to see 40-50 electric golf carts with colorful banners with organizations’ names on them, big tents, air conditioning, catering and yet, a lack of kevlar gloves for people to handle cats or no vet techs at all in the cat wing. Simple things like that—things you think people would think of first when dealing with rescue. Things like getting proper materials to help animals, food, and logistical plans to make sure they were well taken care of—before the RVs arrived, the cameras set up, the media consultation—before anything else.

It was disheartening, but it wasn’t our job to combat that. Our job was to help as many animals as we could. So we took as many pit bulls as we could and a couple of small dogs. We took the undesirable cats, those that people wouldn’t adopt—those with one eye or a temperament of shock from the whole ordeal. We also took a 300-pound pot-bellied pig because we knew he would be hard to adopt out. We took him to a farm sanctuary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

On a whole, the mission was a success for the animals we rescued. But there is this looming feeling of regret, like we should have done more. So I’m currently in the process of writing grants and asking for finances so individuals with our group can go again.

What still needs to happen?
If we rely on government responses to disasters, there needs to be a sense of accountability when government fails us. There needs to be a better and more appropriate response and a better, logistical system to get people out of there. There needs to be better systems for displaced animals, for their owners to find them. I guess this was a learning experience for America and it may not be the last experience like it, so we need to learn and do whatever we can and act appropriately to make sure next time it won’t be this bad.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Our eyes were opened down there. When we went to Gonzales, I heard a conversation where someone was looking for vegan food to eat and someone from one of the national groups said back, “this is a disaster, you can’t have everything you want.” The food provided was ham/cheese burgers, there were vegetarian options but they were eaten first. My friend PJ, who was with me, said it best in response: “Every day is a disaster for factory farmed animals.”

There was a tremendous disconnect that some of the rescuers had with the animals. People came down to rescue cute and cuddly dogs or worse—to rescue breed-specific dogs. It really bothered me when I heard groups saying, we’re only here to rescue Chows or Pomeranians or whatever type of dog to bring back to their breed-specific clubs. Some people feel so strongly about one animal but not another because they are not as pretty or that animal happens to be on their plate every other night for dinner. They don’t want to take the time to think about them.

While doing rescue work I am not going to fight with someone about it because my main objective is to get animals out of there and make their lives happy. But now that I’m home, I can be slightly critical. This is really important: animals in farms suffer every single day, it’s not just cats and dogs. Just because you have a cat or dog and you build a social relationship with them, it doesn’t mean those animals are any different than any other when it comes to pain, suffering, feeling love for their offspring or will to survive. Veganism is an idea that people need to pick up; it is very inclusive of the basic ideas of why some of those rescuers were there. You can alleviate suffering every single day in your life by not consuming animals.

To learn more about the Animal Defense League of Long Island and its Katrina relief efforts, contact www.animaldefense.info or (631) 374-9096.

 


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