On September 4, 2005, Trixie Levins and her family—husband Erin, 13-year-old daughter Erin (aka Spanky), Siberian Huskies Mirabeau and Meeko, and cat Johnny Rotten, Jr.—were airlifted out of New Orleans to escape the floodwaters. An army ground crew refused to allow them to take their dogs, but a navy helicopter crew offered to make room on board for the entire family, so none of their pets were left behind.
“I finally managed to get the names of the four guys crewing our rescue ’copter, and I'm in the process of contacting them,” says Levins. “They were the ones who told us we could bring the dogs, and chased them down in City Park after the ground crew made us release them. We’re inviting them to be our guests for Mardi Gras 2007.”
When I spoke to Levins more than a year ago for Bark’s special Katrina feature (Winter ’05), she did not know how badly their house had flooded because, like me and my husband, residents were not allowed to return to flooded neighborhoods for weeks—in some cases, months—after the storm. The Levins family returned to New Orleans in mid-October 2005 and found that their Bancroft Park home had stewed in five feet of brackish water for weeks, plus suffered roof damage. Living in a cramped rental apartment nearby, the Levins gutted and repaired the home, and were able to move back in mid-July 2006, 10 months after Katrina.
“I still have a ‘fake’ kitchen—appliances but no cabinets for at least four more months—but even that hardly matters,” says Levins, who like most locals, feels that all of the hard work is worth it in order to live in a city as unique as New Orleans. “Meeko, Mirabeau and J.R. are all doing great. The dogs are eagerly awaiting cold weather, and J.R. is doing his part to keep the rodent population in check. Of course, the added benefit of two large dogs in a neighborhood that is barely 40 percent reoccupied is worth having to administer frequent baths [following] their duck-hunting forays in Bayou St. John. Because even in today’s New Orleans, not much smells worse that ‘Bayou Doggy.’”
Rats and weeds are indeed flourishing in semi-abandoned neighborhoods, where only pockets of rebuilding pioneers can keep them at bay, but the stray animal population is lower than it was before Katrina. Charlotte Bass Lilly, executive director of Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO), an organization created in response to Katrina, says that thousands of animals died in the flood and those who survived were in poor physical condition, which limited their ability to reproduce. ARNO is dedicated to trapping stray animals, especially if they are pregnant; require urgent medical care; or are still in devastated areas, some of which are likely to be bulldozed en masse.
“You don’t see dog packs like you used to,” says Louisiana SPCA Executive Director Laura Maloney, who helped oversee the largest animal shelter and animal-rescue operation in the country at Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, La., with the support of dedicated staff and colleagues nationwide. “There are a few packs, but nothing like it was. For New Orleanians, it was not a surprise when you were going to work to see a pack. For people from somewhere with a higher animal ethic… they’re not accustomed to that. It’s all perspective.”
Maloney says that the tens of thousands of people rescuing animals off the street post-Katrina helped remove animals who were strays before the storm, a task that had always strained the LA/SPCA’s limited resources. For years, the City of New Orleans contracted with the private, nonprofit organization for animal control, but did not follow through with sufficient financial support, leaving it up to the LA/SPCA to raise the necessary funds on its own through donations and grants.
“We have an opportunity to maintain a low stray population,” says Maloney, “but there are several challenges. As a community, residents are in the bad habit of allowing animals to roam and leaving them intact. So if they’re allowed to roam and they’re breeding, we’re quickly going to get back to where we were.