Log 25 - 9 October 2005

A FINAL GOOD-BYE

It’s always tough to say goodbye especially to folks that you have spent every waking moment with for the last 40 days! We began demobilizing the team on Friday, the seventh, and Connor and I finally left early this morning.

log252.jpg How to sum up our operations? Two hurricanes, truckloads of MRE’s (Meals-Ready-to-Eat), more unneutered pit bulls than I ever dreamed existed, too many nights with too little sleep to dream at all . . . Between Rita and Katrina, our Animal Emergency Services truck and team moved nine times. I was fortunate enough to work with an endless stream of wonderfully dedicated people -- the most exceptional ones being, not surprisingly, the nearly 50 responders who joined the American Humane Association’s team at various times during our mission in the Gulf region. And, of course, there’s the most important thing of all: the countless animals these amazing volunteers were able to rescue . . .

log253.jpg Today, I drove back to Lamar-Dixon for a final look. At its peak, Lamar Dixon housed just over 1,400 animals, and the total number that came through probably exceeds 5,000. Day and night, the aisles between the barns were an endless flurry of activity: People piling enormous amounts of donated supplies into small mountains; the almost-white noise of barking dogs; the troops of untiring volunteers cleaning crates, walking dogs, and feeding and watering the animals. A chain of tents once surrounded the barns like ramparts to sleep the people who everyday walked dogs, cleaned crates, and unloaded donations. Volunteers traveled here from every nook and cranny of the country and the world to join in the rescue effort, some part of organized teams, others individuals who came with only their commitment to help. The responders were as diverse as could be. But they all left their homes, put their lives on hold, and worked together on a common goal for the same reason: To make a difference for the animals left destitute by the hurricanes.

So much went into these operations, thanks to the contributions of many amazing people, that it was almost haunting to walk though the now nearly deserted barns. Watching as various groups pack up, and the remaining animals are prepared to be transported out, I realized just how significant this operation was. This was the largest animal rescue operation ever in the United States, and hopefully, if we’re better prepared for future disasters we will hold that dubious place in history.

log254.jpg But that’s not the only way the work down here has changed the way we respond to disasters. Groups that were ordinarily not found in the same room, now squeezed into the same vehicle to head off on rescue and feeding operations. Agencies and organizations more often than not at odds with one another in any other situation abandoned their differences for the sake of the critters. I worked closely with some incredible people from national and international organizations like International Fund for Animal Welfare, Humane Society of the US, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as well as a host of individual humane societies and SPCAs from communities all over the US. And I won’t soon forget the incredible feeling of camaraderie of working together through long days and long nights. My hope is that all of us in the animal welfare community have learned from this experience that the ability to save animals depends on our working in partnership. I have high hopes for all that can be accomplished if we can continue to collaborate on shared goals and use the strength of a united effort to improve the welfare of animals.

Still, as I write this, I find myself struggling with the nagging fear that we could have done more, could have saved more animals. If there had just been more hours of daylight, no curfew, better intelligence, more trained responders, better cooperation . . . We learned so much as an animal welfare community but my worry is that with such a steep learning curve we were slow to develop a good game plan and we were forever playing catch-up.

The enormity of these disasters has taken a toll on everyone involved. It’s impossible to witness the tragedy of the animal victims of Katrina and Rita without wondering what could and should have been done differently. We rescued (and now care for) thousands of pets, and I have to wonder: Did all their families really have no other options but to leave them to fend for themselves against the hurricanes? And have they learned the hard way how to protect their pets? Will they be better prepared for the next time a disaster strikes? Have the rest of us, who watched the events unfold from a distance, learned this crucial lesson? Does our government realize that, by not recognizing the importance of animals and not including them in their disaster response, rescue operations for both people and pets were hindered? After so many heartbreaking reports of distraught evacuees being forcefully separated from beloved pets, can there be any doubt at all that we need a system in place that provides for animals during disasters to avoid inflicting the trauma of losing their animal family members on people who have already suffered so much?

If there is any consolation in the grim aftermath of the hurricanes, it’s that our country is beginning to understand how intricately connected the safety and well-being humans and animals are. If we as individuals responsible for looking out for our pets and as citizens directing our government can improve the way we prepare for and respond to disasters so that animal needs are taken into account, then the painful lessons of Katrina and Rita will not be entirely in vain.

When all is said and done, I think the animal welfare community can say we did our best for the animals. While we undoubtedly made mistakes, there can be no question about the commitment, dedication, and willingness of everyone involved in the animal relief efforts to give everything we had to do what was needed.

Before I take off for some much-needed time to be with my wife and play with my dog, I need to offer my heartfelt appreciation to the thousands of folks who generously donated to the American Humane Association and made our Animal Emergency Services efforts possible. I would also like to thank the folks in Louisiana who opened their doors and their hearts to us. Last but certainly not least, I want to thank the responders. I wish my words could adequately express my respect and gratitude for you, who gave of your time and money to join the team in Louisiana, who worked untiringly despite intolerable heat and humidity, who risked your health to exhaustion, disease, mildew, and hazardous materials, who rode out Hurricane Rita with only an RV for shelter so Animal Emergency Services could resume rescue operations the minute the storm passed, who most impressive of all took on a monumental task and never faltered, never flinched:

T. Connor Michael who literally held us together; Ginger and Meredith, for being there since the beginning; Sue and Janus for bringing a little bit of home; Katie and Colleen, for coaxing smiles to the faces of everyone they met (even Clyde’s!); The ARL-Boston crew (Bubba, Hugh, Mike, Brian, Bill, Sandy, and Nicholas) whose brilliant work in the field was awe-inspiring; Mannie who, with the help of his sidekick-teammate, Pam, was the best “Gopher” I could ever hope for; Sue, Ed, and Alan -- three of Maryland’s absolute finest; Dr. Lorna and all of her vet and vet tech buddies, for ensuring that sick or injured critters got the medical care they needed; Tony and Allison, who came from Austin to offer their boat to the rescue efforts, along with their unflagging enthusiasm to help; Chris and Sue, who can put zip-tie hog pens together with the best of them; Ron and Collin, our official pit bull tamers; Jen and Chris who came to the rescue all the way from Michigan; Holly and Graham whose incredible professionalism set the standard for the rest of the team to reach; Sandi, Kat, Sandy, Elaine, and Teresa who made sure the pictures got seen and the stories got told; Mary Pat and her group from Nashville who came to the rescue in Lafayette; John, a firefighter at home and a great Animal Emergency Services safety officer, for looking out for all of us in the field; Kerri, whose work in coordinating the responders was almost as invaluable as her skill and experience during operations; Jeanette and Becky, who jumped right in and helped bring order to the chaos; Deborah, with her infinite energy and a heart the size of Atlanta; Michael and Jim and the entire San Diego SPCA contingency, led by C.J. and Zack, for helping us finish the “list”; Gina, who hit the ground never stopped moving; and finally Dr. Rick Wakefield who provided his helicopter, his intelligence, and his insight at a time when all three were absolutely needed.