Nobody said it would be an easy job, but John Tschida, the new director of Heartland Animal Rescue Team, had no idea he'd be asked to prepare for 500 to 1,500 incoming animals. But that was the request from officials who planned to house several thousand Hurricane Katrina evacuees, both human and four-legged, at Camp Ripley.
Scrambling, Tschida put out the call for help. Stepping up to the challenge were 250 volunteers who were willing to do whatever was needed. Individuals contributed food, pet provisions, medical supplies and monetary donations. Mills donated a truckload of cat and dog food. People from Canada sent materials to HART as well.
Then came the news that neither people nor pets was coming to Camp Ripley. Plan B was to transport the goods, all three semi-truck loads, to the Animal Humane Society based in Golden Valley. Tschida breathed a sigh of relief. While HART admirably met the demand, it goes to show how unprepared essentially all communities in the United States are for the kind of natural disasters often associated with other regions of the world.
Animal Ark, another Minnesota organization, has been and continues to be on the frontlines of the animal rescue battle in the Gulf states. Soon after Katrina struck, staff and volunteers loaded their mobile medical van, known as the Neuter Commuter, and headed south. Other volunteers followed in large trucks and personal vehicles, equipped not only with supplies necessary for animal rescue, but what they would need for themselves along the way and once they arrived.
Their destination was Tylertown, Miss., northeast of Baton Rouge. It's one of several major staging areas to receive evacuated animals rescued from New Orleans and surrounding areas. Animal Ark is now making twice weekly trips to Tylertown.
Their mission is to assist with rescue efforts, examine incoming animals, triage, administer medical services and surgery, vaccinate, micro-chip, groom, record distinguishing attributes of each animal, photograph and enter the data into the Petfinder register, assign kennel accommodations and, most of all, give tender and compassionate care to the furred and feathered. Many animals are dehydrated, emaciated, suffering from chemical burns, skin conditions, parasites, poisoning and injuries that require significant care, to say nothing about being traumatized and filled with fear. Their ultimate goal is to reunite as many animals as possible with their owners or guardians.
Animal Ark joined national organizations, including Best Friends Animal Society, the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and others. They're asking all rescue entities to refrain from adopting Katrina animals into new homes.
Rather than arranging permanent adoptions, the coalition is requesting animals be placed on "foster to adopt" basis for a minimum of three months. Other facilities are holding animals in foster care until the end of the year. Animal Ark departed from the status quo by upping the foster care time to six months.
"These families have lost their homes, their jobs and some have lost family members," said Mike Fry, executive director of Animal Ark. "To take their pets away, too, without giving their families a chance to find them, would be unthinkable."
To date, Animal Ark has brought more than 100 rescued animals to Minnesota, with more animals arriving in the weeks to come. They'll continue bringing animals here as long as they have foster caregivers who will take them.
So far Animal Ark has had six reunions. One is especially poignant to Fry. He took two foster dogs home, including a Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix that had been rescued from a third-floor apartment. Volunteers named him Goldie.
Meanwhile, a woman in Louisiana started searching for her son's two dogs. Through Best Friends, she discovered "Goldie," whose real name is Tiny, on the Petfinder Web site. Paperwork traced him to Minnesota.
This dog's identification was confirmed when Fry called out "Tiny" and the dog readily responded. Tiny is currently recovering from neuter surgery and will be returned as soon as possible to his guardian's mother. The second dog also was located.
Unfortunately, this story took another turn before the reconnection. It seems the young man who owned both dogs recently died. His mother had given Tiny to her son as a gift and now she will have Tiny back.
Another reunion took place recently when Lane and Sandy Ikenberry retrieved Petey, their orange tabby. The couple had left Petey and their two other cats in their house when New Orleans was evacuated around Aug. 29.
After the Ikenberrys were allowed back in, they found one of their cats with a fatal gunshot wound to his head. The other, whom they described as a "wild cat," was outside in good shape. But Petey was gone. A couple of weeks later they located him on the Internet. The next morning, they drove to the Tylertown shelter to pick him up.
When Sandy called out Petey's name at the Best Friends' cat barn, Petey quickly lifted his head and swung around. Lane lifted him out and said, "I'm sorry, Petey. I'm so sorry."
Not all stories have bitter endings nor bittersweet endings like Tiny's and Petey's companion. Many have been joyful as people and pets reunited.
According to the Petfinder Web site, so strong is the commitment to reunite humans and animals, the ASPCA has pledged $500,000 to help animals lost in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita find their way back home. A $500 reward is being offered for each reunion of pets and their families - up to 1,000 reunions in all. The ASPCA and HSUS also will reimburse shelters for costs of transporting animals back to their families, wherever they may be.
All shelters, municipal agencies and rescue groups that are housing rescued animals from Hurricane Katrina or Rita - except for those in temporary staging areas - may apply. This fund applies to all agencies, regardless of location.
More than 8,500 animals have been rescued in the Gulf states, thanks to the efforts of national, state and local humane organizations and thousand of volunteers. The residents of the Noah's Wish temporary shelter in Slidell, La., illustrate the variety of evacuated animals. As of Sept. 25, they had a total of 823 animals in their care. This included 473 dogs, 297 cats, 12 birds, nine ducks, eight chickens, seven rabbits, three snakes, three geese, two lizards, as well as a solitary emu, scorpion, tarantula, horse, ferret, fish, potbelly pig, rat and turtle.
The task at hand remains massive in scale. If you'd like to volunteer, donate money or become a foster caregiver, please contact Animal Ark or one of the other reputable rescue organizations too numerous to mention in this limited space. Helping will make your heart sing.
For more information, log onto the Web sites of the following organizations: Animal Ark, www.animalarkshelter.org; ASPCA, www.aspca.org; Best Friends Animal Society, www.bestfriends.org; Humane Society of the United States, www.hsus.org; Petfinder, www.petfinder.org.
ANDREA LEE LAMBRECHT, naturalist and outdoors photographer, can be reached at email@example.com.
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