A Race to Save the Dogs of New Orleans

A lone dog finds refuge on the stoop of a  home west of downtown New Orleans i i

A lone dog finds refuge on the stoop of a home west of downtown New Orleans as the sun sets on Sept. 10. Tom Fox/CORBIS/Dallas Morning News hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Fox/CORBIS/Dallas Morning News
A lone dog finds refuge on the stoop of a  home west of downtown New Orleans

A lone dog finds refuge on the stoop of a home west of downtown New Orleans as the sun sets on Sept. 10.

Tom Fox/CORBIS/Dallas Morning News
Texas National Guardsmen rescue a dog from a warehouse west of New Orleans

Texas National Guardsman Sgt. Jeff Burns, left, and Sgt. Michael Dailey rescue a dog from a warehouse west of downtown New Orleans on September 10. Tom Fox/CORBIS/Dallas Morning News hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Fox/CORBIS/Dallas Morning News
Jane Garrison of the U.S. Humane Society gets a lick from a rescued dog

Jane Garrison of the U.S. Humane Society gets a lick from a rescued dog in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans on September 9. Carlos Barria/CORBIS/Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Barria/CORBIS/Reuters
A dog finds temporary refuge on floating wood on August 29 after levees burst and flooded the city

A dog finds temporary refuge on floating debris on August 29 after levees burst and flooded the city's lowest-lying areas. Michael Ainsworth/CORBIS/Dallas Morning News hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Ainsworth/CORBIS/Dallas Morning News

Paul Robinson of Duluth, Minnesota, has one leg on an awning and the other on a window ledge of the second-floor apartment on Orleans street about a mile north of the French Quarter. Robinson is, as a casual passerby might surmise, trying to break into this apartment. He wants to take the one thing he values most. His partner in this operation, Walter Peters, attempts to hand him a crowbar. It clangs to the floor. But then Robinson manages to remove the screen, and within seconds he opens the door for Peters, who is struggling with the New Orleans heat .

Soon they are inside, and they know exactly where they are going. They have a sort of homing signal — the sound of barking.

Robinson and Peters, and two women — Walter's wife, Faye, and their friend, Gayle Donnell — are a four-person animal rescue team from Minnesota. They are part of a program called S.N.A.P. for Spay, Neuter, Aid Program, and run a shelter which took in more than 500 animals last year. Walter Peters estimates that he has surpassed that total in the past week alone. They arrived in New Orleans more than a week ago, but they're not sure exactly how long. The sleepless days tend to run together when you're saving the lives of so many animals.

Back then the dogs were all barking; some were pretty feisty, and therefore hard to capture. Donell describes their work during that period as a kind of triage. Back home in Minnesota they might spend eight hours trying to chase down one stray. Here, if the dog ran away or was vicious, they just had to pass it by, they couldn't spend too much time on an individual dog. But now the dogs have gotten quieter, some have died, but most have given up. The cats act that way all the time, solitary to the end, preferring not to call out for help.

The group does its work by day, because at night things change within the animal kingdom. Packs have emerged. Animals that were loving house pets at the end of August have reverted to their instincts in a last-ditch attempt to find food. Faye Peters says that by night she sees the dogs roaming the streets. As much as she wants to rescue these animals who are motivated only by need, she knows to keep her distance. When the dogs are in packs they're more like wolves, and can be dangerous. Faye says this as she cradles a newly rescued terrier mix in her arms. This dog weighs 20 pounds but looks like she's normally closer to 30. Faye says the packs prey on smaller dogs like this.

As fierce as the packs are, most dogs the group comes across during the day are so appreciative they rarely bite.

Robinson tells of a Rottweiler the group picked up on Monday. They fed him and gave him water. He got some energy back, and then tried to bite the humans. Walter chalks it up to the tremendous fear and stress these animals are experiencing.

Back in the apartment, the signs are clear that this family left in a hurry. There is a huge bowl of half-eaten kibble in the hallway, and a child's room is strewn with dog droppings. It's hot and smelly, and likely to have turned into a tomb, if not for the S.N.A.P team. Peters and Robinson climb the stairs, and there they see a little Yorkie, less than ten pounds, shivering in the window sill.

"The little ones bite," Walter warns, but Robinson picks up the little dog in his hands. "It is okay little guy," he coos in his Caribbean accent, "It's okay bu-dee." The dog has no fight left in him, and accepts rescue. This a good visit for the team, because they also find a turtle, who is given clean water for the first time in what must be a week.

But once Robinson and Walter Peters emerge from the apartment and lock the door behind them, they're faced with more challenges. For one thing, their main van has two flats, because the road they thought was passable was actually filled with glass and nails which shredded their tires. Replacement tires cost $100 each, and quite frankly S.N.A.P. is strapped. Their vehicle, which hauls a trailer, gets about seven miles to the gallon, and this nonprofit was never flush with cash even before they left Minnesota.

Then there's the matter of what happens to the animals. They have been giving everything they've collected to the humane society which, they are told, transports them to the closest shelters. In this case, there's one in Gonzalez, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. They can only have faith in the assurances they've been given that the shelter will adopt a "no kill" policy. But even euthanasia, Faye says, is preferable to what the dogs and cats face if left on the street.

By nightfall I make my way out of town on one of the few roads I know to be open. I have to weave through a parking lot at one point, and there, blocking my path, is a tiny dog, smaller than even the Yorkie. I get out of my car, and see that this four-pound dog is covered in what must be three pounds of mud.

I approach him and feel his collar for tags. There are none. What can I do? I don't know where the team is, another group of animal rescuers have told me the shelter in Gonzalez has actually stopped accepting animals (which turns out to be true for a day, but it has since reopened). I crumble up some energy bars I have, and dip them in peanut butter my wife packed for me, sure that it would be my only source of sustenance for days. I offer the bits to the dog, who gratefully nibbles. Good. I pour some bottled water into a plastic sandwich bag and place it on the ground. But he does not drink. it. This fits in with what Walter Peters told me, that when animals become extremely dehydrated they refuse water. I do not know what taking this dog with me will do. He might be diseased, he might have ingested so much dirty water that he'll never survive anyway. Plus he's not drinking, and I don't have an eyedropper, or any other way to coax the water into him.

I drive away, but can't stop thinking about him. I mention the dog to some people in a van that says "New Orleans Parks Department." They offer to call it in. But I'm not sure what will come of it.

At dusk, my mind turns to the packs of dogs Faye spoke of. I see a cardboard box, grab it, and make my way back to the lot where I saw the dog. If worst comes to worst, I figure I'll drive right to the animal shelter I know is on the LUST campus in Baton Rouge.

I park on the street, not in the lot; the dog is so small I don't want to run him over. There is the plastic sandwich bag filled with water, right where I left it, untouched. The crumbled-up energy bars are gone, but so is he. Muddy paw prints dot the ground, but then lead to no where. Maybe someone rescued him, maybe he wandered off, maybe he'll escape the packs for a night. Most likely fate will catch up to him.

There are too many problems besetting this city, one small dog seems so ridiculously insignificant. I've talked to a hundred evacuees, seen plenty of dead bodies, and recorded the following sentence over and over: "I'm wearing everything I own..." But this feels disproportionately horrible, those muddy footprints that lead to nowhere. Sorry little dog, I tried.

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