Rescuing pets in Katrina’s wake
October 31, 2005
I’ve taken plenty of exotic vacations, but my trip to New Orleans was the most significant of my life. A couple of weeks ago, I took a flight to New Orleans to join my husband, Erik Kallstrom. After he read a Hurricane Katrina news report about a horse swimming in circles in flood waters with nowhere to go, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He packed up our horse trailer with pet supplies and drove south. By the time I arrived, Erik had been volunteering at a number of temporary animal shelters in Mississippi and Louisiana, working primarily with dog and cat rescue missions organized after Hurricane Katrina. He’d already been down there for two weeks.So many stories have come from my trip, like the one about G-ma, the sweetest, skinniest pit bull alive.Or the night we met beautiful Sonya Hamilton in the French Quarter. Sonya had left her New Orleans’ home, which was destroyed, with nothing but her van, her cell phone, her laptop and her two great Danes.There’s the pet sanctuary outside of Grenada, Miss., called Project Hope, where we helped care for 45 rescued dogs before they were transported to shelters from New Mexico to St. Louis.
Then there are the things we saw and felt, as we tried to absorb the immensity of what’s been called the worst natural disaster in modern American history. We saw street after street of demolished houses, buildings, trees and lives. And the smell. I’ll never forget the smell. Deep in the area hardest hit by Katrina was the overwhelming smell of rot, mold, filth, sewer and yes, death. I’ll never forget it.Not without the dogOne morning, we got an assignment to scour the Ninth Ward, one of the low-income neighborhoods that flooded when levees gave way, drowning residents and their pets who didn’t get out in time. Our goal was to catch the remaining dogs and cats, and feed and water the ones too skittish or afraid to be caught. We drove up and down the streets of the demolished neighborhood – and it was there that we saw a dog tied to a chain-link fence. It was dead. Even though the house’s windows had been boarded up in preparation for the storm, the people who lived there had left their dog tied up outside, with no way to escape the rising water. It was a gruesome, disheartening discovery. Our hearts broke as they would a hundred, a thousand more times. House in the streetOne day we were asked to pick our way through another neighborhood that had been destroyed by the hurricane. As we crawled up and down the streets, we met a man driving a truck, doing the same thing.
“Did you see the house in the street in the next block?” he asked us. “That’s the house I grew up in.”The man told us his father and his father’s dog died in that house. When residents were being evacuated, the man’s father, who was confined to a wheelchair, refused to leave unless his German shepherd could go with him. When the Katrina hit, she picked up the white, one-story house clean off its foundation “Wizard-of-Oz”-style. It landed in the middle of the road. We found the man’s wheelchair ramp two blocks away. EliOn one of our last days in New Orleans, we went to the Metairie neighborhood, marked Section 22 on our rescue map. Although the area hadn’t been flooded, it still received extensive damage.I saw a little dog, and we turned down the street to find it. Luckily, the dog was attached to a leash, being held by his owners. A nearby dog wasn’t as fortunate.”Are you here for the black dog?” a woman asked me.
For a day or two, neighbors had been caring for a black Lab that was limping badly. He had a collar with his name – Eli – and his address, which was in the Lakeview area about 15 miles away, but the phone number on his tags was useless. More than a month after the storm, power and telephone service was still out. So, the people who found Eli – the Rices – had gone so far as to drive to Eli’s house; it was ruined and abandoned, they said. Eli wagged his tail, but it was clear he was hurting. It looked like he might have been hit by a car, that he might have broken his hip. We called an emergency shelter we’d been working with and asked if there was a veterinarian available to look at him. There was.On the way, we decided to go by Eli’s house. Maybe we could find another clue about where his owners might be. We found the house – flooded, ruined, abandoned. A giant tree had blown over into the second floor. Two doors down, I asked a man in front of his house if he might know a way to get a hold of Eli’s owners. By luck, he had a cell phone number for George Janssen – Eli’s owner. When we reached him on his cell, George told us his family and Eli had evacuated before Katrina, then come back to find their house destroyed. They were staying with friends in Metairie when Eli escaped. That’s when he got hit by a car, and that’s why the Rices found him so many miles away.George and Eli’s reunion the next morning was worth more than I can say. Just last week, George sent us an e-mail. “Just a quick note to let you and Erik know that Eli is home from the vet’s and doing fine. Hip was dislocated and was popped back in and is staying there. We have enjoyed several long walks and even though I had him neutered he is still talking to me. I thank you very much for the kind care you gave my beast. Very best wishes, George.” Carrie Click is the editor and general manager of The Citizen Telegram in Rifle, a sister paper of The Aspen Times. Carrie grew up in Aspen, and has raised seeing-eye and wheelchair-assistance dogs. Erik, born and raised in Aspen, has a 20-plus year career as a farrier and horse trainer.