Americans love their pets. When Hurricane Katrina forced people from New Orleans, many evacuees faced a second crisis: they had to leave their dogs, cats and other pets behind, because animals were not allowed in emergency shelters and other temporary housing. But animal welfare groups quickly set up facilities where many of those animals could be cared for while their owners sorted out their upended lives.
One of these temporary shelters is located inside a giant agricultural coliseum normally reserved for rodeos and cattle shows, Ginger Guttner of the LSU veterinary school, offers an estimate that explains the cacophony of barks and meows. "As of this morning we had one thousand two hundred and eighty seven animals here. I think over five hundred are cats. And then we have assorted other animals - ferrets, a couple of ducks. There is a pig somewhere..."
The shelter has been almost overwhelmed by offers of help from around the country. Dr. Becky Edcock of the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, says donations of pet food, leashes, kennel cages and other supplies have been arriving by the truckload.
"It's been a monumental task and just incredible to watch this thing grow from just two people a cage and a desk to the operation we have going today," she says. "At any one time of the day, we've got more than a hundred volunteers here on site helping us with animal care."
One of those volunteers, a young man named Cliff, has spent many hours at the shelter.
"I like animals and I felt like it was something I could do to help," he explains. "I've seen a little bit of animal-owner reconciliations since I've been here, and a couple of empty cages that indicate where a dog once was, that dog found a home. So that's encouraging!"
According to Dr. Edcock, animal shelters like this, and on-line databases to re-unite pets and their owners, are actually a part of the human health care effort following Hurricane Katrina. "We feel really strongly that the human-animal bond is so special and it's important to these people's psychological and mental health that they know that this important part of their family is receiving care," she explains.
Ginger Guttner agrees. "Most of the owners that I've talked to, they are just so grateful to have this option," she says, "that they were able to bring their animals and keep them somewhere."
Both women recall emotional reunions at the shelter. The day before, Ms. Guttner met a young woman who had two cats and her duck. "… And the duck is following her around just as if she were the duck's mother. It was very sweet." Dr. Edcock says that a lot of children have come to see their animals. "The moment that sticks out in my mind was when a family came in and they had been separated from their pet. And the family -- it was the mother and her small son -- found out that the pet was here. And the joy on their faces and the joy on the face of that little dog when they came back together, we all cried. It made what we are doing worthwhile."
Indeed, smiling, reunited families are easy to spot throughout the complex. One happy looking couple couldn't stop petting their mutt "Missy." "I'm so happy to see that she is happy," the wife said. "This is our first day being able to visit. We came to bring her a doggie treat and walk her and let her know we still love her." Her husband nodded, then added "It's a great thing that they are doing, helping people out. Because the pets are companions, and they are faithful and loyal friends. We love them."
But it's not all sweetness and kibble here at the shelter. Ginger Guttner says that fights and near-fights between animals are not uncommon. "Animals feels stressed the same as people," she explains. "They're in an unfamiliar environment. They've been taken from their homes and they don't understand why. So even animals that wouldn't normally bite, we have some that are more aggressive than they would be normally."
And then there are the pets that seem to have no trouble adjusting to the chaos. One New Orleanian says that being at the shelter has even improved the personalities of his cat - now sitting contentedly on his shoulders - and his dog. "It's fantastic! Her whole temperament has changed. She is more mellow. Our German shepherd doesn't really like other dogs, but his temperament has changed too. Now it's a little bit softer. He barks at them still, but he doesn't charge at them as much."
It seems that even the animals are doing their part to help out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - one of the worst natural disasters in American history.