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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Many people who evacuated their homes in New Orleans were forced to leave without their pets. Tens of thousands of animals were left behind. The ASPCA sent animal relief workers into the region on rescue missions. As part of our Animal Week series, we're going to hear from one of the volunteers, Margaret McLaughlin. She started off doing triage work, then went off in animal rescue boats. She's the director of vet technicians at an ASPCA animal hospital in New York. She's also a certified search and rescue diver. I spoke with McLaughlin after she returned home from New Orleans in September 2005. She told me that while on the mission she was given daily lists of addresses where animals had been left behind.

Tell me one of the stories about going to an address to find pets. Tell me a story about what it was like.

Dr. MARGARET MCLAUGHLIN (Director of Veterinary Technicians, Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital): Well, one of the most memorable stories was - which a lot of people know this story already - it's the story of Rudy the pig. His owners called the 800 number and asked to have Rudy removed from the house. They learned that it was the last day that they could surrender and evacuate peacefully or they would be physically removed from their home by the police. So out of desperation they called the LA SPCA number and asked to have Rudy removed. So when we motored up to the house, the house was completely - there was like a moat, completely around the house, of water, this filthy water. And when we went into the house they were very happy to see us, and so was Rudy who was about 300 pounds. Rudy lived in the house. He had his own little bedroom with little pig pictures and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: …all kinds of pig stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, it was really amazing. He had his own little bed. And the sheet on the bed had little pigs on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: So these are people that really, really, really loved their pet pig.

GROSS: So what did you do with a 300-pound animal? Did he fit on your boat?

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, yeah. We had a huge dog carrier that we had the top off of. We brought that into the house. We had the pig stand on a blanket and between six people we lifted up the pig and placed him into the carrier and then put the top on the carrier. And the most wonderful feeling was when I told the owner that - because he was like, oh, I can't stay here anymore because I know that I'll never see my pig again.

And I said that's not true. And he said, aren't you going to euthanize the pig? And I said, no. We are taking your pig and we are going to keep him safe until you have your stuff together and you can come and pick him up again. And when he heard that we weren't going to euthanize his pet pig, he was just so happy and he was hugging us all. It was really, really wonderful.

GROSS: Well, you know, although most of your search was very directed because you had addresses from pet owners, did you see a lot of, you know, like animals, who had like left their home and are…

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: …wandering around, you know, lost and afraid?

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, yes. We saw a lot of them. In this one neighborhood that we went to, the Saint Bernard Parish area, we would just motor down the street and just whistle. And at any given time, you could hear five or six different dogs barking. And we would just, you know, capture them and collect them and put them in carriers. And when our boat was full, we'd just bring them back to our staging area. Go back out again, get another boat full.

One of the addresses that we heard dogs barking from, we actually saved five beagles. They had crawled up a tree that was knocked down by the hurricane. And they were in the way top branches, probably only 10 feet off the ground because the tree was laying down. And they were very, very scared and they ran away and ran into their little - there were like little boxes for them. I guess it was like a puppy mill type of place. Some of the beagles were dead. But they were five that were alive and we rescued them.

GROSS: When you were rescuing dogs that were lost or afraid, were they afraid of you or did they see you as a potential rescuer? I mean, I think, a lot of animals when they are afraid, they either hide or they fight.

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah. That was a problem. The majority of the dogs and the cats were very, very frightened. Most of the time they were hiding under beds, or they were outside and hiding under whatever they could hide under. And we would use ropes and catch poles and stuff to try to get them out from under whatever they were hiding. And we had to take care not to get ourselves bit or injured.

GROSS: How did you do that? What precautions did you take?

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, to get cats, most of the time we would have an actual carrier, cat carrier, and the majority of the time when you're capturing a cat, they'll go into a box. The cats were pretty much easy. You could just kind of scoot them in or scare them into a corner and kind of trap them and then they would go in. But the dogs are another story. They will not willingly go into a box. And then you would have to throw a leash on them or entice them with food.

GROSS: Did you carry a lot of food for that purpose?

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And you also have to be careful not to feed them too much because they hadn't eaten in quite a few days. And you need to just give them very, very small meals at first. So when enticing them, you know, we have to just give them tiny little pieces, just enough to get them over to you where you could slip a leash around their necks.

GROSS: When the dogs were afraid of you, not realizing that you were there to save them, did that hurt at all? I mean, here you are making many sacrifices to save these pets, and of course they don't know that and they are not necessarily going to be like appreciative of your presence or friendly to you.

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Yes. It - that's a little hard. When you're wrestling and jumping over things. I mean, sometimes, we would have to like jump on top of -you know, when you got out of the boat, you would have to jump on top of a car, from car to car to some - a porch or something like that to try to wrestle this, you know, biting vicious pit bull. You'd be like what am I doing here? But as soon as you got the leash on them and you gave them a little food, the majority of them, they were appreciative. They were just scared and protecting, you know, their last stand.

GROSS: We will hear more of our interview with Margaret McLaughlin about rescuing animals after Hurricane Katrina after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: As part of our Animal Week series, we're listening back to an interview with Margaret McLaughlin about her experiences four years ago, when she worked as a volunteer with the ASPCA, rescuing animals from the floods of Hurricane Katrina.

What was one of the riskier things that you did to rescue a dog?

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: I climbed over two cars. Well, one of them was a van - onto to the roof of another car. And…

GROSS: Were these the cars that were mostly submerged?

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Yes. So, just the roofs were showing.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: And then I walked up the back steps of a house, where - they were metal steps that were kind of not very secured to the building, to the second floor which had had an open roof. And the water at one point had been probably a foot higher than it was because there were three dogs trapped on that roof. So, I walked up those steps and I was able to entice two of them with food. They first were barking and growling and lunging at me.

But, once they realized that I was a friend and I was trying to feed them and help them, they calmed down. And I got them into the carriers. And one of them actually jumped off the roof into the water and started to swim around, where one of the people working with me on my team, he jumped in the water and started after the dog and he got a leash on the dog and the dog eventually paddled over to our boat, where we pulled him up into the boat.

GROSS: I'm wincing as I hear this because…

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: …I'm thinking about what's in the water and I'm thinking…

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh.

GROSS: …of the dog jumping in it and of your colleague jumping in it.

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, well we had dry suits on. We were completely equipped with dry suits. We never got our heads exposed to the water. But, our hands and our feet were exposed.

GROSS: Were you able to see signs of some of the things that pet owners had done in hopes that it would help their pets survive the storm?

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah. Most of the cats that we rescued were doing really, really well and had, probably had no idea what was going on outside. Most of the owners had left plenty of food, plenty of water, many different cat boxes, even for single cat homes. We often saw three and four cat boxes and an abundance of food. All the people that did that, all their animals were really well off. You know, they were just scared and lonely.

GROSS: Animals don't often like each other's company very much. You know, dogs bark at each other and get into fights on the street. Cats are not pleased when strange animals are in their presence, so what was it like to bring all these animals together, who were already spooked, onto a boat?

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, they were in their separate individual carriers. Most of them were kind of scared being on the boat to begin with, so they didn't really say anything. The cats pretty much just, you know, hid in the back of the cages and the dogs were kind of scared being on the water, so most of the time they were very quiet. Occasionally, we would put two animals together that we thought were a family, like a mother and her puppies or two older dogs that we thought were a family. And then occasionally you'd hear some barking or a little bit of fighting going on. But other than that, most of the time the animals were very quiet inside the boat.

GROSS: Some people listening now might be thinking, is it appropriate to worry so much about pets and have a rescue operation for pets, when not all of the people were rescued and when there were still dead human bodies floating by? Is that the kind of thing that you thought about much? You know, is it appropriate to worry about animals, when there are still people in jeopardy?

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: It's all kind of connected. Most of the people that we saw that would not evacuate, they would not evacuate because they still had their pets. And they would not leave their pets behind. So, we go in and get their pets and then they can be evacuated. So, it's pretty much the same - even though we're helping the animals, we're still helping the people.

GROSS: How do you feel about risking your health to save other people's pets?

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: At first, I was a little nervous about touching the water, but just - the more I saw the pets coming out of the water and the houses and they were covered with muck, the more I was like - you know, I just - I didn't think about it. I just wanted to help and I wanted to do whatever I could for the animals and for the people whose pets they were - that I would hope that somebody would go into my house if necessary some day.

GROSS: Well, Margaret, thank you for the work that you did. And thank you for talking with us about it.

Dr. MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Margaret McLaughlin recorded in September, 2005, after she returned home from an ASPCA mission rescuing pets left behind in the floods of Hurricane Katrina. She's the director of vet technicians at an ASPCA animal hospital in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.

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