Luverne resident saw horrifying effects of Katrina on household pets, animals

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 29, 2005

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, news stories concentrate on devastation to homes in New Orleans, the damaged city infrastructure, and the loss of human life.

But left out of the conversation are New Orleans residents who had nothing to lose except for their pets. They were forced to leave behind their last friend, uncertain if they would be reunited.

Luverne resident Vicki Law was on those that realized this and decided to take action. She saw an opportunity to serve people along the Gulf Coast who had lost nearly everything.

Law packed a trailer full of supplies and headed for Gonzales, La., to join hundreds of volunteers from across the country who worked nearly 21-hour days to rescue pets and reunite them with their owners.

“I learned about the need for additional volunteers at the shelter from postings on the Internet and I could see the devastation in the eyes of these people on TV and knew that this was something I just had to do,” Law said.

The animals saved by search and rescue teams were temporarily housed at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, a venue normally used for showing horses, until their owners could reclaim them or until they were transported to another shelter.

The sprawling compound northeast of New Orleans became the major staging area for animals rescued from devastated coastal areas. The five barns at the center held 750 animals apiece, that is about 3,750 dogs, cats, horses and other domesticated animals at any given time, Law said.

Although rescuing the animals and bringing them back to the shelter was a success in itself, the real work had only just begun, she said. Many of the animals that were brought in had been stuck in the toxic sewage and water since Hurricane Katrina made landfall nearly three weeks earlier.

“We could tell about their living conditions by the appearance of many of the animals that were wet and wreaking an awful stench and were thin and dehydrated. Some of the animals even had watermarks on their bodies,” Law said.

After the animals were cleaned and fed, the volunteers inserted microchips under their skin and they shot photographs to post on the lost-and-found website

Law said that state and federal officials had capped the number of animals allowed at the compound at 1,300, a number that was easily reached and exceeded within the first week of operation. This meant that in order for Lamar-Dixon to take in 300 more pets, they first had to relocate 300 pets to other shelters.

According to Law, the main obstacle preventing the movement of animals out of Louisiana is a state regulation requiring that pets owned by residents must be held in Louisiana for at least 30 days.

“We were running out of room in Gonzales and we had offers from other states that wanted to take some of the pets,” she said. “We even had airlines offering to fly them out of Louisiana and back to their owners, but we couldn’t move them until we had permission from state and federal officials.”

That permission finally came on Sept. 17, freeing up the desperately needed space as the animals kept pouring in by the busload.

In addition to the displaced animals sheltered at Lamar-Dixon, nearly 2,000 evacuees from New Orleans were housed in the Trademart building located within the same complex. As the animals kept arriving and the need for volunteers increased, some of the evacuees began helping with the animals.

“It was amazing to see these people that had lost everything be so willing to help us with other peoples pets, especially the washing, walking and feeding chores,” Law said.