BOOKS: Orphans of Katrina

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2010:
(Actual press date November 3.)

Orphans of Katrina
by Karen O’Toole
Give A Dog A Bone Press
(P.O. Box 5665, Carefree, AZ 85377), 2010. 244 pages, paperback. $16.96.

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina beat up New Orleans and
the Gulf Coast, sending frightened residents fleeing for safety.
Hurricane Rita followed. Tens of thousands of dogs, cats and other
animals were left behind, mostly by people who were at work and
unable to get back home when Katrina hit, or expected to be away for
just hours or days, not months or forever.

Karen O’Toole in Orphans of Katrina describes a city in
ruins. Houses were splintered like toothpicks, cars demolished by
fallen debris, shattered glass lay all around, and streets clogged
with polluted water. Those animals who were able to get outside run
around searching for food, water, and safe refuge. On leave from
her film industry job, O’Toole bargained her way into New Orleans,
since transportation into the city was shut down. O’Toole was
stunned by the silence. “Hello anybody,” she called out on arrival,
but received no response.
After the National Guard restored order among the remaining
residents, an army of volunteers and professional shelter staff
arrived to begin arguably the world’s largest animal rescue. Though
the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 afflicted many times more
animals and a vastly larger region, the post-Katrina rescue involved
more organizations and volunteers, working for a longer time.
The Humane Society of the U.S. and Best Friends Animal
Society set up major animal rescue centers. Concerned individuals
like O’Toole mostly worked out of an abandoned Winn-Dixie parking
lot. The larger groups received a record volume of donations, but
O’Toole and the other spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers, called
“SUV” rescuers by the professionals, were largely on their own.
The half million New Orleans evacuees took about 200,000 pets
with them, but left 50,000 behind. About 25,000 are believed to have
been killed by the flooding. That left 25,000 at large or locked
inside houses, clinging to rooftops, or huddling inside cars,
hungry, thirsty and frightened.
O’Toole and her small band of volunteers broke into an
abandoned apartment building. “I found a frail, scared Chihuahua
backed up against the wall in fear,” she recalls. Other pets in
that same apartment included a hamster, some fish, and two
parakeets, “all in bad shape but holding on.” Ready to leave,
O’Toole went back for a second look. There, inside the bathroom, an
almost lifeless Chihuahua lay covered in roaches. “She will always
be my littlest angel,” O’Toole says. All the animals were evacuated
to a rescue base, but O’Toole did not ask about the fate of the
“angel.” “You learned early on not to ask,” writes O’Toole–but all
the rescue centers among them euthanized fewer than 150 animals in
the first three weeks after Katrina. More than 8,000 were saved.
The National Guard helped to recover injured dogs and cats.
But two police officers from St. Bernard parish, Michael Minton and
Clifford Englande, were filmed shooting loose dogs, even some with
identification tags. They were indicted in November 2006. Current
Louisiana attorney general James Caldwell dropped the charges soon
after taking office in January 2008.
Thieves posing as wildlife rescuers arrived in vans with
sanctuary names painted on the sides. Exotic birds disappeared,
then were posted for sale on
About 5,000 pets were eventually re-united with their people.
About 23,000 dogs, cats, horses and other small pets were placed
for adoption by shelters around the U.S. and in Canada, including
many puppies and kittens who were born in the rubble after the storm.
Though there were some noteworthy local farm animal rescues, most
cattle, pigs, and chickens afflicted by Katrina were just written
off as losses and left to fend for themselves.
Orphans of Katrina includes a lot to cry about. The story
may make you angry too. But it’s also about the power of the
animal/human bond. –Debra J. White

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