The Last to Leave
Katrina left thousands of pets stranded and starving, waiting for rescuers to find them.

BY HOLLY HILDRETH with BONNIE STEWART

Thousands of people fleeing Hurricane Katrina were forced to abandon their pets. No one knows how many died, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has estimated that rescuers found shelter for more than 8,000 dogs, cats, horses, livestock and other animals from Louisiana and Mississippi.

Some of the animals were strays, others the beloved pets of grief-stricken owners.

One woman stands out in the memory of Susan Eddlestone, assistant professor of small animal internal medicine at Louisiana State University.

The New Orleans woman was ill when she and her dog were dropped off at the temporary animal shelter at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, LA. She was dehydrated. She had been without food and water for days. Like many others, she had refused to leave her home without her dog.

“I was overwhelmed with what she had been through in the storm and how she put her dog before her own needs and stayed behind,” Eddlestone said.

Not all the pets along the Gulf Coast were that lucky.

The stray population

Even before the storm hit the Big Easy, the city was home to one of the nation’s largest stray pet populations.

Ninety-five percent of the pets there had not been spayed or neutered, much higher than the national average of 27 percent of pets that have not undergone the surgeries, said Gloria Dauphin, assistant to the director of the ASPCA.

“People travel or move here, and [the stray population] strikes them immediately,” Dauphin said. “There is a big cultural bias when it comes to spaying and neutering…They view spaying and neutering as an option, not a necessity. They say ‘my God gave my dog the ability to reproduce, and I’m not going to take that away.’”

The city’s poverty rate also hinders efforts to hold down pet numbers. An estimated 21.7 percent of the population was living below the poverty line in 2002 according to the U.S Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. People who have trouble paying for their own basic needs don’t always have the means to sterilize their animals.

Animal groups to the rescue

Best Friends, an animal sanctuary in Utah, began rescuing animals one day after the hurricane hit New Orleans, said Barbara Williams, the national organizations spokeswoman.

The group’s boats picked up 4,000 starving animals.

“We never stopped to figure out if it was someone’s cat that got out or an animal on a street,” Williams said. “For us, our attitude is once we put our hands on an animal, we’ve made a commitment to our animals.”

The Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine responded too. The University housed 2,000 pets with known owners, Eddlestone said.

“The medical problems we saw were broken legs and wounds due to chemical burns,” she said. “Many of the animals were malnourished and losing hair, which is one of the first things to happen. But if the animals were healthy enough, they bounced back.”

Animals coming into the shelter suffered varying degrees of emaciation, depending on how long they’d been on the streets, Eddlestone said. Dehydration, starvation and diarrhea were common.

Eddlestone and her colleagues faced another challenge from animals with name tags that said “needs medication.” One dog came in with such a tag and the veterinarians didn’t know what kind of medication it needed until it started having seizures. “Then we knew,” Eddlestone said.

Heartworm also plagued many dogs.

At least half of the New Orleans-area pets tested heartworm positive, Eddlestone said

The disease is spread by mosquitoes and is most prevalent in areas within 150 miles of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, according to the American Heartworm Society.

New Orleans poverty level also affects dog owners. It cost money to buy the year-round heartworm preventative, and once the dog contracts the disease treating it can be difficult and expensive.

Still waiting to be found

Many pets that were lost during hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma are being fostered by rescuers across the country. To help reunite the pets and owners, Petfinder, an online pet locator, has set up a special disaster section on its Web site.

Preparing for the next storm

If weather conditions are not safe for you they are not safe for your pets, the ASPCA Web site warns.

The ASPCA advises pet owners in hurricane-prone areas to: