April 5, 2006

Owners, Rescuers Remember Animals Killed in Katrina

By Jeffrey Jones

METAIRIE, Louisiana -- From ferrets to pigs, dogs to cows, the countless animals who perished in Hurricane Katrina were remembered in a memorial service where Louisiana animal rights activists urged better protection for pets.

With music, stories and tears, about 75 animal lovers gathered at a church late on Tuesday to share tales of rescue and loss and to pay tribute to those who fought to rescue the forgotten victims of the crisis.

"My feeling is this -- that we need animal police, and that we need to make some kind of provision for that because we can't have all these animals running around loose with nobody caring for them," the Rev. Neal McDermott of the Archdiocese of New Orleans said at the church just outside the battered city.

Organizers also urged governments to speed up new evacuation and support plans for animals to prevent a repeat of the chaos that followed the storm seven months ago, when pets were separated from their owners, went missing or were killed.

"I hope and pray that what took place will not be repeated because we won't let it. Our lives are enriched by our pets," McDermott said.

Many there stood up to say the name of a lost pet, or even an owner who died rather than leave his dogs.

At least 1,300 people on the U.S. Gulf Coast were killed by the August 29 storm and in its aftermath, which included the flooding of 80 percent of New Orleans.

An official with the Humane Society of Louisiana, which organized the memorial service, said it is impossible to accurately estimate the number of animal lives lost.

"We're including wildlife -- reptiles, amphibians -- farm animals, livestock, and then the larger one which most people focus on, the companion animals, and then service animals, which are guide dogs," said executive director Jeff Dorson. "I can't put a figure on it. My guess is hundreds of thousands."

As many as 190 groups from across North America sent an army of volunteers to rescue and care for animals. The society's own shelter the New Orleans area of Algiers was flooded, forcing it to set up a compound in Tylertown, Mississippi.

After the storm, tales abounded about dogs left tied to poles, only to drown when the water rose past the length of the chains, or rescuers preventing owners from taking pets when they were plucked from homes.

Social worker Kerry Ermon has rescued everything from cats to ducks since Katrina, has seen hundreds of dead animals and even watched a large, malnourished dog take its last breath under a house while she tried to dislodge it.

"I have nightmares all the time, I have just really bad memories, I've got the famous Katrina cough from all the toxics," said Ermon, 52. "In some ways it's strengthened me and in some ways it's weakened me."

Dorson said federal and state legislators are rewriting disaster-response plans to include animal evacuation, something sorely missing during Katrina.

But he urged lawmakers to move quickly, with the formal June 1 start to the hurricane season looming.