Treading Water

More than one year after hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast, humane organizations, shelters and resident dog-lovers struggle to survive.
By Julia Lane, November 2008, Updated February 2022

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.”



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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.


“Another challenge is achieving a balance between well-meaning people feeding the strays who remain and [the LA/SPCA] capturing them. The only reason animals generally enter a trap is because there’s food and they’re hungry. If they have easy access to food, they’re difficult to capture. There really needs to be a coordinated effort, and we’re trying to coordinate with some of the feeders here.”


Katrina exposed many of New Orleans’ problems, all of which existed before the storm, animal welfare certainly being one of them. But despite many setbacks, including the loss of its 9th Ward shelter and veterinary clinic, and making do with fewer, less-experienced staff and an old, leaky warehouse, LA/SPCA is back on track with its adoption, volunteer and education programs. Discount microchipping events and low-cost spay/neuter events —such as hosting the “Big FIX Rig,” a 53-foot-long, mobile, high-volume spay/neuter clinic—have all generated enthusiastic crowds.


Different Regions, Different Attitudes

Rescuers and animal lovers outside the Gulf Coast were shocked at the number of intact animals in Louisiana and Mississippi, a circumstance that presented an ongoing challenge for animal welfare organizations in the region long before Katrina. Virginia Rankin, media director for St. Francis Animal Sanctuary in Tylertown, Miss., says, “My dad, who is 88, will spay his female but will not [neuter] his boy. There’s no way to argue with him, he’s not going to do it. He’s 88. I’m not going to bang my head on that brick wall.”


However, Rankin will not hesitate to raise the issue with others if she thinks she can get through. “In Lakeview [a neighborhood in New Orleans], an intact dog came running up to me. There shouldn’t be an intact animal for a thousand miles!” The dog had a collar and tags so she was able to find the owners and ask why he wasn’t neutered. When they said they hadn’t had a chance to do it, she offered to make the appointment.


Spay Louisiana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making high-quality sterilization more accessible for all, estimates that there are more than 425,000 intact pets in the state, and of those, more than 88,000 live in low-income homes. These numbers do not include stray dogs and cats. Thanks to generous grants from larger national humane organizations, such as the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States, Spay Louisiana is offering spay/neuter vouchers, which are available at distribution partners such as the LA/SPCA. Residents of the four parishes most severely affected by the hurricane can take these vouchers to participating area veterinarians and have their animals altered for only $20 per dog and $10 per cat. In addition, Spay Louisiana plans to open a Southeast Regional Spay/Neuter Clinic in late 2006 or early 2007 to further its mission over the long haul.


On August 31, 2006, the LA/SPCA broke ground on its new 11-acre campus in Algiers, on New Orleans’ West Bank. It will be built in three phases, starting with the Phase I, state-of-the-art animal control facility in January 2007. Phase II will feature an adoption and education center, and Phase III will offer community programs as well as obedience classes and competitive agility trials.


While the LA/SPCA is starting to look toward the future, some animal welfare organizations, such as the St. Bernard Animal Shelter and the Humane Society of Louisiana, are still scraping by with emergency facilities. Jeff Dorson, executive director of the Humane Society of Louisiana, says the society’s rehabilitation center for abused animals was ruined by wind and rain, forcing the modest group to work out of “Camp Katrina,” a temporary rescue center in Tylertown, Miss., two hours north of New Orleans. A generous $50,000 grant from the North Shore Animal League has helped, but HSLA needs far exceed it.


Prior to Katrina, the Humane Society of Louisiana, which is a private, licensed investigation agency, already faced many challenges, including cracking down on the state’s thriving dog-fighting culture, monitoring substandard animal control facilities, and investigating animal cruelty cases and ushering them through the legal system.


“Louisiana is known as a safe haven for some of the premier dog fighters in the country,” says Dorson. “Dog-fighters have been here a long time without facing prosecution, [and] there is some corruption involved. Central Louisiana is also known for cock-fighting which is still legal, and a lot of the participants are crossovers [to dog-fighting]. We are slowly starting to chip away at that activity by passing state laws.” Some of the laws include making it illegal to be a spectator at a dog fight and making it a felony to own a dog for purposes of fighting.


“Katrina stopped every type of investigation,” says Dorson. “We got a lot of the fighting dogs during the rescues after Katrina, but the urban fighting continues. As we regroup and recover, we will be able to refocus on that. Unfortunately, we have to cover a lot of ground, because few agencies will apply pressure on law enforcement. We have trouble on almost every level of law enforcement when it comes to responding adequately to animal cruelty. They don’t want to deal with it or they don’t feel it’s their job. We try to educate them that animal cruelty is a symptom of other problems—it can lead to child abuse, spousal abuse or elderly abuse—so don’t discount the fact that the dog is being beaten, because all sorts of problems are probably associated with it.


“It’s been a very difficult situation for the smaller groups,” says Dorson. “Enormous support from the public went to large national groups and trickled down with less-than-equal distribution. There has been no distribution fund, even though $50 million was raised. We, and the public who gave so generously, are concerned, and asking, ‘Why are some groups not getting sufficient funds to replace and build what they lost?’ The criteria are that every animal needs to be properly cared for. Why did you pick some groups so their animals are comfortable and ours aren’t?”


Reunion Controversy

According to the LA/SPCA’s “Year In Review” report, it is estimated that 8,500 animals arrived at the Lamar Dixon emergency shelter. However, many so-called “rogue rescuers,” working independently of official animal relief efforts, saved the lives of thousands more. It is believed that more than 15,000 animals total were rescued. An exact count of animals who perished in the months after the storm will never be known for sure, although rescuers agree it is well into the thousands.


“Of the thousands of animals rescued during Hurricane Katrina, only 15 to 20 percent were ever reunited with their owners,” reads the LA/SPCA report. “Although it appears to be a low percentage, it fares better than the national average of 10 percent; but for the owners searching for their pets, percentages hardly matter. … Unfortunately, clear documentation identifying where animals were found and ultimately transported was sorely lacking, a casualty of both the chaos of Lamar Dixon and the rescue groups working outside the system.”


A year later, many owners diligently continue to search for their pets. In some cases, the animal was found, but the newly adoptive family refused to relinquish the dog or cat they had grown to love. Often, the person who rescued the animal from the devastated area led the adoptive family to believe that the pet was deliberately abandoned by the original owner. Though that might have been true in some cases, it seems that anyone still searching for their animal more than a year after being separated would likely have done what they could to save their pets under horrible circumstances.


Stealth Volunteers, an Internet-based organization whose members are renowned “reunion specialists,” has played an important role in locating pets and owners, and helping them find each other. When I first spoke to Stealth Volunteer Cindi Nicotera in August 2006, she and fellow Stealther Sandra Bauer were eagerly awaiting news that after a year apart, 86-year-old Malvin Cavalier of New Orleans and his 12-year-old Poodle mix, Bandit, would be together again.


Cavalier had stayed for the storm, but as waters rose, he knew he needed to get to higher ground. Planning to return for Bandit, he left food and water, wedged the door open so the dog could go on the porch, and waded to the Superdome. Animal rescuers saved Bandit, and members of another group, Voices for Animals, transported him to Pennsylvania. But Cavalier, who ended up at the Houston Astrodome, didn’t even know where to start looking for his best friend. That’s where Nicotera and Bauer came in. (If you’d like to read more about Cavalier and Bandit’s saga, please go to a blog created by Bauer.)


“Malvin was married for 54 years and his wife passed away four years ago,” says Nicotera. “They had the dog together. He lost his wife and then it was just him and Bandit. You know what that bond is like. It’s one of those things that’s hard to explain. His dog has been his life for a really long time. He loves this dog, the dog loves him. Bandit had appropriate identification as Malvin’s dog. That should’ve been reason enough to return him. I do in all sincerity feel very badly for the people who adopted the dog, because they adopted [him] with terrible misinformation. That is the biggest problem with rescue and return.”


Duane Greilich and Lisa Fox thought they were doing a good thing. The husband and wife, who live near Pittsburgh, often foster dogs for Animal Friends, a local no-kill shelter. In late September 2005, they received a call asking if they would temporarily take in a Katrina dog. The couple, who have two dogs of their own, were happy to help, and agreed to foster Bandit. About one month later, they were told that Cavalier, the owner, did not want Bandit back. Fox’s boss offered to informally adopt him, and in December 2005, Bandit went to his new home.


Says Greilich, “When we got him, he looked bad. He had skin disease, but that could’ve been from the water. He had really bad fleas, but that could’ve come from being around other pets. So I guess [the initial rescuer], when he picked up Bandit, thought he was abandoned, that it was animal cruelty, and he got the ball rolling that Malvin didn’t want the dog back.”


Bandit was also intact. As a rule, Animal Friends spays or neuters all animals who enter their system. Unfortunately, the fact that many Katrina animals were not spayed or neutered was often pointed to as “proof” that these pets were neglected and that they should not be returned.


“No one is accepting the difference in the culture for what it is,” says Nicotera. “If the pet is not spayed or neutered, that translates into, ‘You don’t know how animals should be treated and you shouldn’t have one.’ Even now, I’m involved with animal-response teams, and [when] I talk about my experience down there, they are so judgmental. They have the notion that every pet in New Orleans was chained on a porch and the owners went away and said, ‘Die!’ That’s exactly what they think.”


When asked why she thought Cavalier should get his dog back, Nicotera says, “Simply, Bandit is his dog. It’s the last thing he wants before he leaves this earth. At 86 years old, he should have it.”


In June 2006, Cavalier filed a lawsuit, personally financed by Bauer, against Lisa Fox, the last person known to have Bandit, for his return. Soon thereafter, Greilich and Fox requested an opportunity to speak to Cavalier directly. Greilich says the attorney for Voices for Animals, concerned about liability, told them no.


“She said that if we gave the dog back and he died, that Malvin could sue us,” says Greilich. “I was like, ‘This is ridiculous!’ This is just about a man and his dog. I decided to find this Malvin Cavalier myself.” Within 15 minutes, he says, he had Cavalier’s phone number. Once Greilich and Fox learned the truth, that Cavalier wanted the dog back and always had, they agreed to send Bandit home. On August 31, 2006, Cavalier’s wish came true.


Nicotera, who lives in Pennsylvania, flew with Bandit to New Orleans, where they were picked up at the airport by Bauer, who is from Canada. The threesome traveled to Cavalier’s FEMA trailer in front of his 9th Ward home, where Cavalier and Bandit saw each other for the first time in over a year.


“He’s very happy!” says Cavalier, a few days after the long-awaited reunion. “He was so glad to see me. Anytime I’d go to the supermarket or church, when I’d get back, he’d run up and down the house, jump up, stand up, do a little dance. He’s back at his clowning. He had a habit of lying flat on his stomach and he’d put his face right on top of my slipper and just sleep right there. He did that before Katrina and he’s doing it now.”


Cavalier feels indebted to Nicotera and Bauer, without whom he says he would’ve never recovered his dog. Both women stayed several days after the reunion to help gut Cavalier’s house, for which he is also most grateful.


“I never did give up,” says Cavalier. “I asked God, ‘Before I reach the end of my age, could I please see Bandit again?’ And my prayers were answered. A lot of people don’t believe in prayers, but I do. I’ve been through so much in my life,” says Cavalier. “My first wife died after childbirth, left me with children five, six and seven years old and a baby. I didn’t know what to do. Bad enough when the man dies. But when the lady die, and leave children with a man … I had a lot of help. Have courage and don’t give up.


Lisa Downs is taking Cavalier’s advice to heart. Lisa, who lived in Meraux, La.—a suburb east of New Orleans destroyed by storm surge—hopes to be reunited with her dog, too. She and her fiancé Robert Carter, their two-year-old son Devin, three dogs and two birds attempted to ride out the storm because their only car was not reliable for a long evacuation trip, despite having been seen by a mechanic earlier in the week. Someone offered them the use of a pick-up truck, but the couple refused because the small cab would not allow them to bring their beloved pets.


The storm surge was so strong that it forced open their front and back doors simultaneously, and Downs was pinned by the sofa. Carter grabbed Devin off the kitchen table and took him up to the attic, then freed Downs, who joined Devin in the attic. Carter then spent the next frantic few minutes in the water, trying to save all of their animals and get them up to the attic as well. A boat came to rescue them, and after insisting that they would only go if their animals could go too, the entire family was taken to a temporary shelter, albeit one still surrounded by water.


During the week following Katrina, the Downs–Carter family struggled to survive but with each step they took toward safety, they were forced by authorities to leave one more animal behind. They went from one temporary shelter to another. After days spent enduring the horrible conditions of the “Field from Hell,” a grassy area off the interstate where thousands of people were dumped without adequate food, water or sanitation, the only animal they had left was their smallest dog, a Shih Tzu mix named Lil Bit.


“When the buses came that Saturday [September 3, 2005] morning, I had Devon in one arm and Lil Bit in the other,” says Downs. “The bus driver said, ‘You can’t bring that dirty dog on this bus.’ My son was starting to cry. I said, ‘Please let us bring him, we’ve already lost everything, four animals, this is all we have.’ He actually looked at me and said, ‘You can always wait for the next bus,’ and he knew that wasn’t an option for us— we were all dehydrated and sunburned.”


Despite their pleading and begging, and their son’s tears, the driver would not back down. They set Lil Bit down in the grass and boarded the bus.


“We had Devin unexpectedly,” says Downs. “Prior to that we thought our animals were the only children we would ever have. We risked our own lives to save these animals, so to have [people] say, ‘Too bad, they don’t mean anything to us, you’re going to have to leave them behind,’ that was ….” Voice fading, she was unable to continue.


They eventually found refuge at Downs’ parents’ home in Memphis, Tenn. While visiting a Red Cross shelter there to fill out forms and request help, Downs first learned about’s massive database for Katrina animals. Sadly, they learned that while their two large, senior dogs, Jordan and Ce-Ce, had been rescued from the location where the distraught family was forced to leave them, they were in such ill health that they were euthanized. Their two birds also did not survive.


“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.”




In 2005, we presented “In Their Own Voices,” and asked people to share their stories with us. Recently, we caught up with three of our earlier contributors.


Melissa Seymour and Mark Jackson took in Sparkle, a senior German Shepherd, soon after Katrina. They found her owner, Delford Thomas of New Orleans, but having lost his house and job, he told them he could not support her. The couple adopted Sparkle and made plans for her to undergo hip replacement surgery. Unfortunately, her bad hips were a symptom of degenerative myelopathy, and her condition has since deteriorated. Sparkle doesn’t like her special mobility cart, so Jackson, whom she adores, carries the 85-pound dog wherever she needs to go. Seymour says that as long as Sparkle is alert and “full of spunk,” they will continue to make her as comfortable as possible.


When Katrina hit, Tina Reynolds and Andrew Kenworthy were out of town. Their house-sitter evacuated, leaving behind their Dalmatians Pearl and Bones and foster Dalmatian-mix, Spec. Fifteen days later, the entire family was miraculously reunited, and everyone moved to an apartment in Houston. Their Uptown home did not flood, so Reynolds returned with the dogs in mid-October 2005 (Kenworthy stayed in Houston for his relocated job). In January 2006, Spec was adopted by a family in Gretna, La., who adored him and appreciated everything Reynolds and Kenworthy went through to save his life. Sadly, one month later, the couple’s beloved six-year-old Pearl, their first foster for Crescent City Rescue, was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect; she passed away in July 2006. Just before Pearl died, Reynolds and Kenworthy took in a young foster Dalmatian, Oliver. He and Bones bonded so strongly that the couple wound up adopting Oliver and have since opened their arms to another foster Dalmatian, Chase. They’re happy to have a three-dog household again.


James Mercadel, who is blind, rode out the storm in the attic of his 7th Ward home with his leader dog, Jake, and mixed-breed Gressive. A neighbor rescued him by boat and promised to return for the dogs, but didn’t. Mercadel ended up at the Astrodome and asked for help saving his dogs. More than a week later, Jake was found at the house and reunited with Mercadel. In October 2005, a Michigan humane society called to say they had Gressive, and arranged for her to come back to Mercadel. Soon thereafter, his Texas hosts, Shelly and Allen Thornton, helped him move to Independence Hall, a home for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the stress of being in a new environment and the trauma of Katrina greatly affected Gressive, and she was not getting along with Jake. Mercadel made a difficult decision and gave Gressive to a good friend. Now, she and Jake are both much happier. He plans to stay in Houston, where he has made many new friends.



Photo: AdobeStock

Julia Lane owns Spot On K9 Sports, a training facility in the Chicago area, and offers online dog-sport coaching. She is the author of several travel books, and her byline has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poets & Writers and elsewhere.

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