It's been almost a year since I volunteered at Lamar Dixon, the makeshift animal shelter in Gonzales, Louisiana, where I helped care for animals who were orphaned and abandoned during hurricane Katrina, but the horrible experience is still fresh in my mind. I'll never forget the animals' mournful cries or their forlorn, bewildered faces.
The noise was deafening; lost, frightened, panicked dogs barked constantly, day and night. There were six huge barns brimming with crates, housing the animals. I helped clean the crates, feed the animals, walk them, take photographs, record data, and send new arrivals to the veterinarians for much-needed medical attention and microchipping. . It was exhausting, dirty work. But the hardest part was seeing all those sad eyes looking up at me, begging to be held, played with, comforted, taken home.
One bright note during the difficult work was finding that one of the dogs was actually wearing an ID tag! We were thrilled to say the least. A fellow volunteer called his guardian-who thought her dog had drowned and had given up hope-and made plans to reunite them. The poor woman was hysterical with joy. He was all she had left.
A sweet elderly couple came by the shelter to pick up their lab mix, Nikki. Nikki and her guardians were in the water when a helicopter flew overhead. The pilot stopped, but told them they had to leave their beloved dog behind. The man was devastated; he left Nikki on a patch of dry land and flew off. I tracked him down when I returned to Manhattan and we spent months searching for Nikki, checking PetFinder.com, calling shelters and animal rescue groups, following any and every lead we could find. We finally found her and Nikki was reunited with her family. It was a joyous reunion.
Before I left Louisiana, I got permission to go into New Orleans. It was eerie; like a ghost town: wires swaying in the breeze, rubble everywhere, deathly quiet except for an occasional National Guardsman or repairmen. Another volunteer and I were assigned to a particular area of the city and told to go to check out certain situations. We could hear dogs crying and barking inside several houses; we broke in and got them out. In one house, a huge Rottweiler was closed in a bathroom with no food or water. I don't know how she survived.
We found another Rottweiler in a yard, an Akita under a house, a little yellow dog in a yard, and a black cat in the middle of a forsaken road. We were instructed to go into one home to check on a poodle. We found her dead under the bed.
The experience made me realize more than ever how very dependent animals are on us. How important it is for us to protect them, shelter them, and give them the care and compassion they so desperately deserve. That having a companion animal is a huge responsibility. That they should be spayed and neutered to keep the population from exploding, which it seems to be doing in Louisiana. That if every one of the animals at Lamar Dixon had an ID tag or microchip, they could have been reunited with their families much easier. That their health and well-being depend on us. The range of emotion they feel, from fear to joy to resignation to pain to hope and happiness is in our hands. We must learn not to let them down.