News Item | PAWS Chicago

Katrina refugees: 10 years later

by George Castle | Jan 27, 2016

In Fall 2005, after seeing heart-wrenching images of terrified animals and desperate families trying to survive in the aftermath of one of the worst hurricanes and floods in U.S. history, a five-vehicle convoy of PAWS volunteers and staff left for the Gulf Coast. They returned 31 hours later with 70 animals, helping clear crowded shelters to make room for more and more incoming pets. The dogs and cats arrived in Chicago, exhausted but safe, and in desperate need of new homes.

Word about the Katrina animals spread across Chicago, and when the pets were fully vetted and available for adoption a few days later, more than 500 people turned out to adopt. In the first day of adoptions, more than 55 animals impacted by the storm found their new families. PAWS made return trips in the following weeks and months, helping save more than 200 animals and uniting them with the most wonderful adoptive families.

As the years have gone by, some of the Katrina animals have passed away. Others remain healthy and happy. Many still show small but lingering signs of their trauma: an aversion to water, a fear of thunderstorms or loud noises. But overriding these memories is their basic resilience, promoted by the lasting love of their adoptive families and returned with compounded interest.

“We will know it is heaven when we see her again,” wrote PAWS Chicago Board Member Charles Day, after his dog, Maude, passed away in November 2014. “The wind that brought her to us blew up from the south nine years ago. Along the way, it picked up a terrified 3-month-old puppy in Louisiana and dropped her into the PAWS clinic. Which is where we met her, huddled and catatonically afraid in a small crate.”

No animal or adopter came away from Katrina unchanged. “Maude never fully recovered from the hurricane. Found wandering the streets around New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, the efforts to trap her scarred her for life. Until the last of her days, the arrival of a stranger sent her into a panic, a fear hardwired so deeply that only a handful of people made it all the way through her defenses,” Charles says. But “to do so gave you access to the unbridled joy that defined her when she felt safe. She didn’t run to you, she bounced. She didn’t wag her tail, she thumped it, the sound loud enough to fill a home.

“The fear that held her back from every stranger meant that her love, when given, was as precious as any breath.” The rescue worked both ways for Sally Sprinkle. Her black Lab adoptee, Cajun, was Sally’s emotional savior in 2009 as her marriage ended, she was laid off in the Great Recession, lost her home, and then relocated cross-country from LaGrange, a suburb of Chicago, to the San Francisco area.

Sally recalls watching the Katrina devastation unfold on television. “We all felt helpless and wanted to do something, anything to help relieve any suffering, be it human or animal, that we could."

She decided to adopt a Katrina dog. “I went down on a very hot Chicago day and took my lottery number. It was 68, and at the time I was convinced that my number was so high that all the dogs would certainly be gone. When I finally got in, I wandered through the different rooms until I found a small black Lab puppy curled up in the back of his cage looking scared. I asked if I could take him out and see him. He climbed high up on my shoulder and put his head down,” she says. ”It was love at first sight.”

Sally’s voice begins breaking up as she talks about Cajun, who died three years ago at the age of 7 of an intestinal illness. She remains inspired by her Katrina dog. “I am now involved with Lab rescue here in Northern California and have fostered five dogs in honor of the best dog a girl could have ever had, my Cajun!”

In Island Lake, teacher-activist Jan Belzer adopted Louie, who was named after New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong. He’s a senior now, but “Louie looks like he hasn’t aged a day,” Jan says.

She came down to PAWS and “was one of the first 10 people in line and he was in the first vanload of dogs brought up from the affected area. He had been put in a cage in the first room off the reception area. I walked in and pulled the tag on his cage. At the time, I was unaware that his leg was broken and that he had a buckshot wound on the back of his neck,” Jan says.

“Louie has been a complete blessing. He runs and jumps like a puppy and entirely enjoys living on Island Lake and being the center of attention.”

Louie truly came to the right household. In 2005, as head of a Palatine elementary school district teacher’s union, Jan spearheaded the raising of about $30,000 for Katrina victims, an amount matched by the McCormick Foundation. The condition of the Katrina rescue dogs traveling from a way station in Arkansas to the PAWS Chicago Medical Center following the storm are still difficult for then-PAWS volunteer Kylie Gordon to recount.

“The hardest part emotionally was how sick and sad and vacant the animals were when we picked them up. They were very frail. I wanted instantaneously for them to be better. At least I knew it was a step in the right direction.” The greater good of saving innocent lives made the exhausting and dirty conditions in which the volunteer found herself well worth it.

Now relocated to the San Francisco area, Kylie says that the arduous journey has increased in value through the years as she hears about Katrina rescues thriving in loving homes in Chicago and beyond.

“I think it’s the adoptive families who are the heroes here, who took the time to be patient and rehabilitate the animals and give them the kind of home they deserve,” she says.

10 years after Hurricane Katrina

Below are a few stories of animals PAWS rescued following Katrina and the incredible impacts they had on their families.

BUZZ "I couldn't believe when PAWS called to say he'd be mine. Buzz is a perfect fit for me. He kept my Dad company while I went to work every day. My favorite memory/moment with Buzz was watching him with my Dad, who has now passed away." -Carol Ann Dvorak
DAISY "I can't imagine my world these last 10 years without my girl. We are two peas in a pod. I never tire of seeing her run up and down the hall as I get home greeting me  as if we haven't seen each other in years." -Amy Callahan

ELLE "We couldn't imagine a life without Elle never having been in it. She's the third leg of our tripod, out third amigo, a human in a dog's body. Elle is a constant source of comfort, a constant companion, not to mention my best pal." -Pat Tomasulo

MOOKIE "When I drove off with her from the Petco, all 40 pound of her jumped into my lap as I was driving. She almost seemed to be saying 'Thanks!' ... She's much better with water now and enjoys swimming! Mookie's been my best friend for 10 years and had made me smile every day." -Molly Roche

LUCY "Lucy brought us so much joy. She was also a bit of a celebrity. Several times when we walked her around town, people stopped us and asked if she was one of the Katrina dogs. She was the most protective pup, and she always stood guard over [my children's] stroller. We lost Lucy last winter and we miss her very much." -Nicole Cready

RODNEY  "Rodney has been a member of the family for 10 years! And what a 10 years it has been. During that time, we've added three children to our family. These days, he is content to lounge on the bed in the sunshine while the kids are at school and then he follows them around the house at night while they are home. He's very protective of all of us." -Kathy Farrow and Rachel Hegarty

SAKI "Saki was truly our first 'baby,' and we didn't mind helping her overcome her fears. We planned our weekends around trips to the dog park and walks in our neighborhood. Saki became a regular at doggy daycare when we went to work and quickly made friends with other dogs in our building. Slowly, her fears became less and less, though she never would go out onto our fourth floor balcony." -Samantha Riggi

HONUS "Honus has been a joyous addition to our household. He follows me everywhere and, although my sons have suggested that he is angling for food or a walk, I am pretty sure that it is really because he is hopelessly devoted to me! His favorite thing to do is eat and his second favorite thing to do is... eat. We love Honus and our love is returned warmly every day." -Jane Donaldson

OTIS AND MIA "I can't believe Otis and Mia are now 10 years old! I had just bought a new condo in 2005 and living on my own for the first time, I knew I wanted to adopt a couple of cats. I can't imagine the space without them, and the best part of coming home is having them greet me at the door." -Paty Schintgen

STORM "I have been a dog owner since I was a teenager and now I am an old guy. Storm was the best dog I have ever owner. We had seven-and-a-half great years together. I have loved all my dogs but only one dog's photo is framed next to my bed, and that dog is Storm, the greatest dog of all time." -Stefan

MARDI GRAS "I adopted a Katrina rescue in October 2015. I didn't have much money at the time, and I couldn't stop working to go to Louisiana to help in person. I figured this was one way I could pitch in for the relief effort. I named her Mardi Gras. She was with me almost 10 years before passing away last October from old age. She was the sweetest animal I have ever met. She never did seem to get over whatever trauma she experienced in the flood. She was always happiest when we were hanging out together at home.  I was with her when she passed away one Friday night on my bathroom floor.  It was her time, but it was still very sad. -Patrick