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Volunteers rescuing stranded pets

SPCA is housing hundreds of animals at rodeo venue

Phil Fricano embraces his dog, Pretty Face, after she was rescued by an airboat crew and returned to him Friday in New Orleans.
Phil Fricano embraces his dog, Pretty Face, after she was rescued by an airboat crew and returned to him Friday in New Orleans.
Shane Bevel, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Pushing a boat through knee-high floodwaters on Napoleon Avenue, workers in waterproof suits steered a damsel in distress to safety earlier this week: Rooty, a bristly, pink, pot-bellied pig, whose ample frame filled a Great Dane-sized dog crate.

Her owners weren't quite ready to leave their flooded home, where animal rescue workers said the pig had her own room, complete with pictures on the wall. But Rooty's girth posed a unique evacuation problem. So they called on the Louisiana SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), which has been overseeing a rescue program for New Orleans pets with the help of volunteers from across the United States.

Using boats to ferry animals out of flooded areas might seem frivolous as law enforcement officials continue efforts to roust the last reluctant humans from their homes. But across the city, people cited concern for their four-legged companions as reason to stay.

People like the woman who one Navy officer said tried to take her elderly cat on her lap during a helicopter flight out of the city, or like the evacuee who filled his luggage with medication for his two Pekinese dogs and four cats.

People like Pam and Rick Ebel. They left their house off Napoleon Avenue on Aug. 31 when the waters rose 14 feet by commandeering a neighbor's gasless boat and using shovels to paddle. A week later they returned with a rickety canoe, and no galoshes to protect them from the toxic floodwater, and rowed out to feed the four of their six cats they couldn't take on the first boat.

"We're trying to get the word out that LASPCA will house the animals," said Renee Bafalis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Humane Society, which is helping coordinate the effort. "We'd like to get those people out of here now that the area is secured so that cleanup and reconstruction can take place."

Using a list compiled as evacuated pet owners or their concerned neighbors called in, the volunteers have been working their way through New Orleans since last weekend, prying open French doors to corral cats, paddling up in inflatable rafts to retrieve stranded dogs.

Dry land rescue efforts continued downtown Friday, while others went out on boats in the Elysian district. Rescuers only enter neighborhoods after they've gotten the all-clear from law enforcement officials handling human search and rescue efforts, Bafalis said.

Once caught, the animals are herded into labeled pet carriers. Sick animals, like some of the free-ranging dogs that Bafalis said contracted dysentery from contaminated water, are triaged to a veterinary center in Kenner, west of New Orleans near Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. The rest go by air-conditioned truck to their own version of the Houston Astrodome: a hastily repurposed rodeo venue in nearby Gonzales, La.

Cats, dogs, pigs, chinchillas, birds, rabbits, goats and a snake now call the stalls at Lamar-Dixon Expo home. There are even some carriage horses from the French Quarter. More than 1,300 animals are housed here, Bafalis said.

On arrival, the rescued pets are photographed and entered into a database. Owners have 15 days to claim the animals, then they go up for adoption. Those looking for their lost pets can log on to www.petfinder.org or call (225) 647-0712.

More than a week after the hurricane, "there are a lot of family reunions going on," Bafalis said Friday.