Katrina pet crisis persists

Times Staff Writer

Hank, a strapping purebred golden retriever, is typical of the second wave of pet problems here in the 21 months since Hurricane Katrina hit.

The first crisis was those lost, abandoned or killed in the storm and its immediate aftermath.

Now there are pets like Hank, who stayed with his New Orleans East owners for the first 10 months after Katrina, which submerged their home in 7 feet of water.


After moving several times and struggling to rebuild their lives, Hank’s owners realized they could no longer cope with owning a dog. So they surrendered Hank to Animal Rescue New Orleans, or ARNO, a grass-roots group that cares for animals that were left behind or separated from their owners.

The dog bounded with joy as ARNO shelter coordinator Robin Beaulieu entered his pen one recent afternoon. Hank flipped onto his back for a tummy rub.

“He loves to be petted and groomed,” Beaulieu said.

The dog has lived at ARNO for the last eight months while he waits to find a new home.

Animal advocates say many pet owners living in trailers and tight on cash while they rebuild their flood-damaged homes opt to give up their animals because they don’t have space or can no longer afford to keep them.

“So many people out there need help with their pets,” said Charlotte Bass Lilly, ARNO’s executive director.

Beaulieu estimated that the number of families surrendering their pets to shelters had gone up between 45% and 60% since Katrina. ARNO was founded shortly after the storm.

Laura K. Maloney, executive director of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said that although some of the animals being put up for adoption by her agency these days could be the offspring of animals separated from their families since the storm, most were pets that had been relinquished by their owners.

According to LA/SPCA statistics, about 259,400 families owned pets in Orleans Parish before the storm. As many as 104,000 were left behind after Katrina; about 15,000 were officially rescued. An estimated 3,000 have been reunited with their families, and at least 88,700 pets remain unaccounted for, Maloney said. Thousands of the pets unaccounted for are believed to have died, she added.

ARNO and other animal advocacy groups believe many of the strays that remain on the streets are “Katrina pets” and their fourth- or fifth-generation offspring. And most have not been spayed or neutered.

Bass Lilly said that unscientific counts by ARNO volunteers who manage the group’s 3,000 feeding stations throughout Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes indicate that there could be as many as 40,000 cats and 5,000 dogs on the streets.

“There are still dogs out there with collars,” Bass Lilly said. She added that although the presence of stray or abandoned animals was not unique to New Orleans, “what makes it different is that these animals are homeless, with no food, water and no garbage to forage. They’re basically in a stress situation.”

University of Pennsylvania researchers surveyed six areas of Orleans and St. Bernard parishes on behalf of the LA/SPCA six months after the storm and found that “relatively few” homeless animals remained.

Maloney said that feeding stations were not “in the best interest” of stray animals and made it more challenging to capture them.

“We are taking animals that are left there, and we are sustaining them,” she added. “That really doesn’t solve our problem. We are helping create more homeless kittens and puppies, and we need to stop.”

ARNO’s food sites cover a 685-square-mile radius, Beaulieu said. Volunteer trappers try to capture the animals for sterilization. Feral cats are trapped, neutered and released.

Bass Lilly said that over the last nine months, her group had found new homes for an average of 200 animals a month. And since Katrina, the volunteers had helped reunite between 50 and 70 pets with their original owners, Bass Lilly said.

Reunifications are still crucial almost two years after the storm, animal advocates contend.

“Every day, animals show up,” said Laura Bergerol, a volunteer with a grass-roots online group called the Katrina Animal Reunion Team.

The animals are featured in newspaper ads, on sites advertising missing pets, and even on the classified site Craig’s List, said Bergerol, who is based in Palo Alto.

There are about 200 animals living at ARNO’s shelter, housed in a warehouse in Jefferson Parish. Bass Lilly said the group had a “no kill” policy.

ARNO survives on donations from volunteers, private sources and other nonprofit groups.

One day last week, a cacophony of barks blended with the occasional purr as Beaulieu showed volunteer Ray Forrester how to trap five kittens that he had recently spotted in his Kenner neighborhood.

“You line the cage with newspaper and put food on it,” Beaulieu said. “The best thing to use is sardines. And Popeyes fried chicken works wonders.”

Cats are typically trapped in cages, dogs often with a noose. It can take several months to win an animal’s confidence so that it is willingly captured.

With the population of New Orleans down to half its size, and thousands of people across Louisiana living in cramped trailers, there are fewer local takers for Katrina pets. So the group is working with partners nationwide to find new homes for the animals.

“Katrina animal celebrity is a way to make people feel they are directly helping with Katrina,” Beaulieu said.