“My heart broke every time I went online and saw how many dogs had been misplaced. These dogs belonged to old people, babies. Not everyone in New Orleans was a dog-fighter. Since Katrina [we’ve] gotten a very bad reputation, and people say these dogs were sick with heartworms or were maimed because they were fighting. Yeah, some people took very bad care of their dogs, but others did take good care of them. I did.”
With the help of Stealth Volunteers, Downs has located a dog whom she believes to be Lil Bit, but the woman in Illinois who adopted him is not being cooperative. During a phone conversation with Downs, she questioned how Downs, whose house was destroyed, could take care of him properly. When a Stealth Volunteer spoke with her, the woman suggested that the family focus on rebuilding their lives, with the knowledge that the dog is well cared for and loved.
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?” says Downs. “He is the only thing I may have left in the world from my prior life. He’s not a thing I can go buy in the mall. This is a dog we love and cared for and bonded with. My son still cries and begs for his dog. Try explaining this to a three-year-old—‘Jordan and Ce-Ce went to live with Jesus to watch over us. Mama is still trying to get Lil Bit to come home.’”
Around the one-year anniversary of Katrina, a lawyer with Best Friends Animal Society contacted Downs and offered to help her pursue legal action to determine if this dog is in fact Lil Bit. If he is, Best Friends will help Downs bring him home.
Planning and Prevention
A poll by the Fritz Institute showed that 44 percent of people who did not evacuate stayed out of concern for their pets, versus 18 percent who stayed because of relatives. These numbers clearly show that allowing people to take their animals with them would save human lives as well.
In order to prevent the pain and suffering of pet separation and loss, Downs was one of many pet owners who shared her story in support of the Louisiana Pet Evacuation Bill, which passed both the state Senate and House and was signed by Governor Kathleen Blanco in June 2006. The federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act passed both houses of Congress and awaits President Bush’s signature. Under terms of the act, government at both local and state levels will be required to create emergency preparedness and disaster plans that include provisions for companion animals. In the future, this will save the lives of both people and animals, as many victims of Katrina died because they refused to leave their pets.
In the meantime, affordable, long-term housing continues to be an issue for many New Orleanians, and a special challenge for dog owners. While the LA/SPCA has not seen a higher percentage of owner-surrenders compared to the past, Maloney thinks that for some, the reasons are Katrina-related. “I think what we’re seeing is more dogs turned in who have been members of a family for a number of years [but] people can’t have them in their FEMA trailer, or they’re living where pets are not permitted. I’m surprised that people … are not more compassionate.”
ARNO takes Katrina-evacuee surrenders from outlying shelters directly into its foster homes. “We take in surrenders [from] Katrina victims still living in their vehicles, or who can no longer afford to keep their pets,” says Lilly. “This is a very sad situation. Many middle-income families with no housing, and no out-of-town relatives or friends, have been forced to live in their vehicles, waiting for 2006 to end so they qualify for food stamps or other government aid. This is the unknown truth about Katrina and her unpublicized victims.... The poor have social services that can help them with food, clothing and even housing. The middle income has no one.”