NOLA Volunteer Trip

October 2005 NOLA Volunteer Trip
Click here to view photos with captions.

I have safely returned from Louisiana after spending a week volunteering at a  shelter for animals rescued from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I, along with my friend Keith, worked with Pasado’s Safe Haven, an amazing animal rescue group based in Seattle, Washington.

When the horror stories began to surface of all the animals that were left behind to, the founders of Pasado’s decided they needed to do something to help. In 48 hours they mobilized a group of 15 people who flew from the Pacific Northwest to New Orleans. They immediately set to work combing the streets of New Orleans rescuing as many animals as they could find roaming the streets, still tied to porches or trapped in homes. Some of the original 15 still haven’t returned to
their homes!

All the animals they rescued were brought back to a triage center they set up on a private ranch in Raceland, Louisiana (about 50 miles southwest of New Orleans) owned by Louis St. Martin, a local attorney with a history of remarkable benevolence. If you are ever injured in an off-shore oil rigging accident, hire this guy. Whether he expected it or not, for six weeks and
counting he has opened his beautiful ranch up to dozens of strangers, not to mention over 1,200 dogs, cats, cows, birds (of all kinds), snakes and a bunny rabbit.

We volunteered at the Pasado’s shelter from October 4th to 11th. They had stopped general rescues (intake) the day before we arrived —not because there weren’t animals that needed rescuing, but because it was too dangerous since the city had reopened. Many residents have returned and some are armed. But with hundreds of animals still at the shelter and the number of volunteers dwindling, there was more than enough work to be done.

It was tiring and the hours were long (we put in 12-14 hours, at least, every day) but it was the most rewarding labor we have ever done. Standard tasks for volunteers involved walking dogs (more on that later), picking up poop, cleaning crates, washing bowls, feeding, filling out paperwork on the dogs’ charts and by the time all this was done it was time to start over again. One afternoon we vaccinated each and every animal with a distemper combo and rabies shot. For a portion of these dogs, it was their first time getting proper veterinary care.

As if all of that weren’t enough, additional chores I would throw myself into included administering medicine, assisting with veterinary procedures and folding load after load after load of freshly cleaned bedding for the animals’ crates. Occasionally I would slow down for a reward: bottle feeding a new born kitten, teaching a puppy new tricks, watching a newborn calf take his first wobbly steps…or, my favorite, a simple quiet moment with a dog sitting at dusk watching the sunset and the thousands of dragonflies that floated around us.

A three week old kitten found with three siblings at just one week old.
Their mother was too frightened to be rescued, so we bottle fed her babies.

Most of the animals were severely emaciated, to the point where hips were jagged points and you could count every rib at a quick glance and see every single bump in their spine. They had all been through traumatic experiences — many losing their families, some nearly drowning, most going weeks without food, and finally being taken to a strange place where they were kept in crates surrounded by other frightened animals.

An emaciated Great Dane rests his weary head.
His cage warned approachers to “Beware: Food Aggressive!”I would read their paperwork hoping for a happy ending. Sometimes their owner was alive and would be returning to get them, other times they were a nameless, homeless animal found on an intersection. Many were heartworm positive, noneof them were spayed or neutered and all of them had a story. My heart would break time and time again. Especially for the black pitt bull puppy covered in ringworm whose chart read, “Found in home. Companion pet eaten. Corpse scattered throughout the house.”

Walking the Dogs
The vast majority of the dogs were large pit bulls, many of whom we suspect were raised for fighting which is illegal in all 50 states and a felony in most. The dogs were housed in long rows of crates in the barn, and they would try to tear each other to shreds as we paraded them in and out like tuna rolls on a sushi bar conveyor belt. This meant using every muscle in my hands, arms and legs to control them and guide them safely outside for their walks.

Much of this aggressive behavior was circumstantial.

They have all been through hell. Their crate, their 3 x 4 space, is all they have left. Guarding it to the death is an instinct that affected even the smallest, sweetest of dogs. But once we got them outside, they were like any other dog: happy to be outside, playful, eager to please and desperate for love and affection.

It was common for these vicious-looking dogs to give us hugs, lick our faces and even roll over on their backs so we could rub their bellies. We worked very hard coordinating efforts amongst other volunteers to establish a more unified routine from morning till night. Consistency will do wonders for a dog and by week’s end, it was evident that our efforts paid off. They were bonding with us and relaxing around each other. The moments of pure quiet in the barn were beginning to outweigh the frantic, frenzied barking of a hundred dogs.

Help of All Types From Around the World
Donated food and supplies of every imaginable kind were delivered each day via FedEx. Many care packages were sent for the volunteers containing such coveted items as fresh socks, nail clippers, Q-tips, lotion, bug spray, you name it. We had hot vegan and vegetarian meals paid for by donors from all parts of the U.S. prepared and delivered by a local caterer. One night the dinner came courtesy of two women, one in Oklahoma and the other in Colorado, who share the same birthday. Instead of throwing themselves birthday parties, they used that money to have the caterer provide the dinner, birthday cake and card included. We sang them happy birthday in absentia and listened as the caterer read their card aloud. It was so very thoughtful and touching everyone shed a tear.

That laundry I folded? Someone had to wash it. Hundreds of pounds of filthy animal bedding was bagged up and left for washing. Each day someone would come by and drop of the bags they had cleaned. Two different women used their own home washer and dryer. Can you imagine? One woman even folded most of it for us!

One afternoon the Sheriff came by. He was wearing cowboy boots. (!!!) He was there to drop off 20 industrial size bags of of fresh laundry. I asked, “Did you do all this?” He said, “No. The warden  had somebody do it.” Ah, I see! Well, I hope the inmates felt good about helping the animals.

Our Favorites
During our time there, we pampered each and every animal in our charge. Keith liked to give them biscuits and extra walks and I made sure they all had soft, clean bedding for their bony frames and a toy to help fill their idle time. There were a few who desperately needed to RUN — off-leash — for about twenty minutes a day. I tried to make sure they had an extra walk or two and would run along with them as best I could given that every muscle in me ached.

we named Jacques (pictured right with Keith) who had a whole host of problems including an eye condition, heartworm, and matted fur that had to be completely shaved. He was sedated at one point which caused his heart to stop. The vet gave him a shot of adrenalin to bring him back. It is not lost on us that Jacques was found on Hope Street.

The time needed to devote to see him through all his treatments would have been too much for Keith to handle, so instead Keith will be sponsoring the cost of his medical care.

My favorite included a very shy hound dog / pitt mix. When I first met her, she was afraid to come out of her cage crouching low and cementing herself to the dirt floor. By the time I left, she would excitedly claw at the door when she saw me and race to get out to the open field to give me a hug and sniff my ears. She wouldn’t relieve herself until we had our moment
of affection together. My last night there, I tucked away a big, cushiony dog bed in a corner of the barn. After our last walk together, I took the bed out of its hiding spot and placed it in the back of her cage with a brand new rope toy. She gave me a lick then proceeded to make herself cozy for the night. I wonder who walked her in the morning and if they noticed her luxury item. Perhaps they did and noted accordingly what a special girl she is.

My Favorite Girl

I also spent time with pit bull puppy around four months old who required the attention a boy of that age demands. Needles for teeth and razors for claws, my boy needed a lesson in how not to bite and scratch and jump! I took him aside one night and spent about 30 minutes teaching him some patience using sign language. In 20 minutes he learned to sit, another 10 minutes later he was shaking paws on command. The next day he learned to lay down and wait which he eagerly did without my asking for the next few days. I hope those lessons stuck with him. He is so eager to please and be

In this photo I’m giving my boy the “sit” command using American Sign Language and he’s looking for  is reward for doing it properly

Much to my disappointment, reunions were few and far between. During my week there I witnessed one and participated in another. In the latter case, two young girls drove all the way from Birmingham to pick up their 10 year old chow. The chow, Peaches, looked terrible because of a very large bite she sustained on her left ear. I worried about their reaction to seeing the dog they referred to as their “sister”.

I brought Peaches into the barn just as they were coming out of an office to greet her. I
was expecting Peaches to go ballistic with happiness and for the girls to burst into tears of joy. Much to my surprise, Peaches seemed barely fazed and the girls were a little hesitant. After a minute of discussing Peaches’ last few days, I fetched the vet to have the shunt (a tube in place to help drainage) removed before they took her home. I held Peaches still and the vet went to action. It was then that girls started realizing just what Peaches had endured.

The shunt and its resulting hole were not pretty. After the procedure, Peaches came to life. Her tail was wagging rapidly and she was pulling on her leash to go out. Previously, she hadn’t shown that much energy in the days and nights combined! She was smiling, her tongue was ready to lick the girls’ faces and the girls were overcome. We all held back our tears and gave each other big hugs before the three sisters headed towards Birmingham to be a family again.

One day I sat near the dirty laundry to put on a fresh pair of donated socks. The barn was exceptionally quiet that moment. I kept hearing a persistent meow which perplexed me. The newborn kittens were not any where near me. I asked someone if they heard it. They did. It was coming from a bag of laundry. We carefully sorted through it and found, much to our shock, a puppy wrapped in bloody bedding and screeching loudly for his mother. The puppy’s mom is particularly on guard. Changing her bedding and tending to her needs is a two or three person job and a rushed one at that. In their haste and effort to not be bitten, a puppy ended up in the dirty laundry! I was so relieved to see him returned to the over-protective eye of his mom. We made sure to do a head count each time after that.

Our last day of work was my best and worst. I absolutely did not want to leave. I made sure to make extra notes on all the paperwork.

“This boy can’t hold it. Feed him last and walk him IMMEDIATELY after he is done eating. DO NOT WAIT.” Double underlined, bold lettering, highlighted.

“She needs exercise or else she gets cage aggressive out of boredom and frustration.”

“Rub this boy’s bottom and facial scabs with Skin So Soft or else he and his cage will be covered in gnats and flies.”

I passed on some tips to the new volunteers coming in:

“Make sure the morning and night shifts feed them the same food. Their solid poop will be your thanks.”

“Wait till your last dog is walked and they have all settled in for the night before re-filling water bowls. Otherwise in their excitement and frenzied barking they will knock their water bowl over and you’ll have to re-clean their cage.”

“Don’t put a treat in their cage until AFTER their leash is removed.”

And would they know, really know, just how amazing every single animal was here?

“Did anyone tell you these cows were rescued? Yep. Ask Rudy the Ranch Manager to tell you from where. I can make heads or tails of his accent to figure it out myself. Oh, and let me show you the calf! He was born just an hour ago!”

“This chicken is a rescue, too. She won’t stay with the other chickens and refuses to leave the dogs. She claimed an empty crate for a while till we shooed her out and collapsed it. Now she just hangs around while all the dogs salivate at the sight of her ripe rump. At night she roosts on top of the cages of a pair of the quietest pitt bulls. Every. Single. Night.”

We broke up the last day by taking a trek to a local drive thru. “Four Bloody Mary’s TO GO please!” We snapped pictures, took video and were unabashed tourists in awe and shock. “Oh, and a strawberry daiquiri, too, please.” Drive thru booze? How shamelessly wrong and awesome. Our server couldn’t figure out what the big deal was but, sure, we could take her picture.

We laughed a lot but, in truth, I couldn’t wait to get back. This was 30 minutes less with these lonely, loving souls. Dusk was approaching. It would be the last time I watched one dragonfly turn into thousands. Just where were they all day? The sky turned from blue to pink to black. It couldn’t be my last walk already. I’ll wait to walk my favorite girl last. She can hold it and we’ll have a few extra minutes together.

“What’s your hurry, sugar? Don’t you know the faster you go, the faster we say goodbye?” She went. We said goodbye. I snuck in the oversized bed and toy I had stashed earlier, gave her a treat and
filled out her chart.

“Hey, Kambri, can you walk this dog?”

Someone shouted down at the other end. An exceptionally large Pitt Bull eagerly panted with his nose pressed to the cage. He need to GO!

“Sure. I guess I’ll walk 17 instead of 16.”

Number 17 was stronger than me multiplied by two and so was a bit intimidating for the new volunteer assigned to his row. My favorite girl wouldn’t be my last and I was okay with that. This big guy was made up of the same goodness my girl was, and he deserved my last few moments there just as much as she…maybe even more so.

On my way out, I checked on the three new arrivals. Intake had begun again but limited to specific rescue requests from pet owners directing them to their own address. Animals still alive needing the most critical care. “They are in very capable hands,” I thought. “Very capable hands.”

That night and for a few nights after returning to New York City, I had a recurring dream. In it, a major storm approaches. The volunteers evacuate all the animals to Oklahoma only to have tornados head towards our building. I see one tornado heading straight at us. In a hurried panic, I scoop up the Great Dane and carry him to safety. I cover him with my body to protect him but he doesn’t like me keeping him pinned down and gives me a low growl. I try to explain that the situation is only temporary and that he is better off with me trapping him than if he were out loose. Yet he still struggles to break free. Then I awaken.

I wish I could honestly tell them that things will get better, that their cage and this situation really is only temporary but, in truth, I don’t know what their future holds.

I have one scratch on my left arm that is quickly healing. Part of me hopes that it will leave a scar so I can show people and remind them of just what happened to that pit bull covered in ringworm who had to eat his friend to survive, the Great Dane who lost so much weight his skin hung like drapes, Peaches and her “sisters”, the bottle fed kittens and the chicken and the cows, the puppy learning new tricks and the little terrier from Hope Street who died on the table only to be brought back to life.

Oh, and the bunny rabbit I mentioned on Page 1? She’s sitting at my feet. Her owner was found but chose to surrender her. A little skinny, a little scared, but otherwise settling in. A transplant from the South trying to figure out just what her life will be like in New York City.

Much like someone else I know.

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