Remembering Hurricane Katrina’s animal victims and the people who saved them.
Illustration by Tracy Walker
Ten years ago this August, hurricane Katrina, one of the fiercest ever, ravaged the Gulf Coast, nearly wiped out New Orleans after its levies on the Mississippi River burst, and deposited a dog on my doorstep. Well, not exactly.
In the aftermath of the storm, it became apparent that an animal disaster was also in the making, partly because of the storm and partly because of the evacuation of the storm-ravaged region. In many cases, the evacuees had to leave behind their pets. They thought they would return soon, but the nightmarish conditions prevented it.
With the clock ticking, local authorities struggled to deal with the situation. As the news showed images of the desperate animals on TV, volunteers, like Richmond veterinarian Betty Baugh Harrison, poured into the void. Betty Baugh, who later received a commendation from the Virginia General Assembly for her valiant efforts to save these animals—my dog, Rosie, a Lab-Chow puppy, included—mobilized animal-loving friends and set the wheels in motion for a rescue effort from Central Virginia, leading to several bold trips to Hattiesburg and Gulfport, Mississippi, the latter being the erstwhile home of Rosie.
One volunteer who answered the call was Doug, an animal trainer for the film industry, who lives on a farm in Hanover County. He drove a pickup truck down to the gulf with a 24-foot gooseneck horse trailer filled with fresh water and supplies, and then loaded it with animals and drove it back to Richmond, a 22-hour trip. He did this not once but three times. Among his passengers were a horse named Navajo and dozens of dogs and cats in cages, including Rosie, who was on her first legit road trip. Kittens and puppies got to ride up front in the cab. On one return leg, Doug drove solo with 70 or so animals but, he discovered as he set out, no clutch. Another truck waited on standby in case his transmission died totally, but he somehow managed to nurse the ark all the way back to Betty Baugh’s Animal Clinic, downshifting only once. There he was greeted by a crowd of vets, techs and volunteers waiting to walk, feed and tend to the animals, including treating them for bite wounds and conducting surgery.
When Betty Baugh, who provided her veterinary services and her staff on two trips to Mississippi, discovered a 3½-legged dog named Polo, who was too sick for the drive to Richmond and about to be euthanized, she flew home with him, administering fluids in flight to make sure he survived. In Richmond, Cary Street Animal Clinic operated on Polo’s leg, and Jean, a volunteer who temporarily lodged an entire litter of eight-week-old puppies so they could stay together until they matured, adopted him.
Another volunteer, Terry, remembers a surprise at a Mississippi shelter, where her team was taking in new arrivals from a rescue bus. At the bottom of a ramp used for offloading, she helped corral the frightened, hungry and often sick or injured animals found roaming or in abandoned homes, including chickens, ducks, rabbits and iguanas. (The snakes, much to her relief, were usually in tanks.) All of a sudden, a Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pig dashed down the ramp. Its short fat legs moved in fast-forward as it squealed and broke for the woods. Howling with laughter at the absurdity, exhausted volunteers cut it off but were soon clutching air as the agile pig eluded their grasp.
Thinking fast, Terry reached into her backpack and pulled out a shiny red apple. The pig was even more hungry than scared. Bacon, as she named her new friend, became a favorite of everyone and was eventually adopted by a family that already had a VPBP named Hamlet.
Then there was the hero’s hero—a mother cat. When a barn on fire attracted the attention of rescuers, they observed an emaciated cat emerge with a two-week-old kitten. Having delivered her kittens during the hurricane and carried them into the rafters to save them as the barn flooded, she returned to the blazing barn. The rescuers could only watch as she went in two more times, retrieving her kittens and suffering burns to her face. When she was done, she lay down exhausted and nursed her little ones.
Ten years later, Betty Baugh still recalls the intense camaraderie formed by the volunteers, not just those from Richmond but from places like Dallas, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.
Says Terry, “You could see the joy everyone had on their tired and exhausted faces. We were saving lives, and that is why we were there.”
Some even say it was the greatest animal rescue in history. Having recently celebrated her 10th birthday, Rosie—a gentle soul who fit into her new family exceedingly well—and I wholeheartedly concur.