THOUSANDS OF pets rescued from New Orleans face death from cramped and unsanitary conditions unless they are re-homed swiftly, animal volunteers have warned.
Dog and cat lovers who travelled from across the United States to save animals abandoned as their owners fled the stricken city believed that once the traumatised animals were out of the city their ordeal would be over.
Staff at the main animal rescue collection centre based at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, 40 miles west of New Orleans, have been overwhelmed by the influx of pets. Hundreds of animals are being turned away each day to an uncertain fate, while those at the centre are kept crated, being walked at best once every 24 hours.
About 5,000 dogs were at the centre last week, many were scared and malnourished, were lying in their own faeces - clearly suffering despite the volunteers' best efforts.
"These dogs are going to start dying because they can't be kept in these conditions," said Linda Stoltz, of the American Rottweiler Association, who was trying to take out dozens of the dogs. "If they are not moved on, rampant disease will start."
The main obstacle preventing the movement of animals out of Louisiana was a State regulation requiring that pets owned by residents must be held in Louisiana for at least 30 days. However, during a meeting between state and federal officials overseeing disaster animal services, Louisiana state veterinarian Maxwell Lea and assistant state veterinarian Martha Littlefield gave oral approval for Lamar-Dixon officials to start shipping out all appropriate animals—with the caveat that the animals be easily tracked down by owners.
Dave Pauli, director of the Humane Society of the United States’ Northern Rockies Regional Office and the incident commander at Lamar-Dixon, assured the state vets that the exported animals would be traceable. All animals leaving the Gonzales facility are microchipped and digitally photographed, he said, with their information to be placed on the website, www.petfinder.com.
Easing the holding rules will help officials at Lamar-Dixon free up some desperately needed space. State and federal authorities had capped the number of animals allowed at the compound at 1300, a number that Lamar-Dixon reached and exceeded in less than a week of operation. That meant if rescuers wanted to bring in 200 dogs, compound officials had to move out 200 dogs to other shelters.
Another volunteer said that dogs were being lost in the system. A few owners arrive each day to look for their pets but leave disappointed, as very few of the animals have been microchipped or photographed for identification.
Michelle Schexnayder, 29, from New Orleans, was searching for the four Boxers - two of them puppies - she lost after being evacuated to hospital when she gashed her leg wading through the floods.
A friend carried on with the puppies but was forced at gunpoint to leave them behind because animals were not allowed on the rescue buses. "It rips my heart out to come here each day," said Miss Schexnayder. "I have no kids and no husband and these animals are everything to me. They're my children.."
Hundreds of rescued pets have been transported to animal shelters as far away as California and Illinois; others are expected to end up in Florida, Indiana, Michigan and Oregon.
In Chicago last week, 70 dogs and cats arriving at a shelter by truck were far outnumbered by the queue of 500 people keen to take them home.
Further good news came after the agreement was reached when approximately 25 shelters from around the USA have formally offered to take between 30 and 200 dogs and cats each from the main rescue centre, whilst another 15 or so shelters have unofficially asked commanders at the emergency facility for animals as well.
Dave Pauli predicted that within 24 hours or so, after officials review shelter applications and decide which animals are appropriate for transport, many more dogs and cats would be leaving the Lamar-Dixon shelter than in recent days. Somewhere between 200 and 600 animals are moved out of Lamar-Dixon daily, although some days the number has been lower.
Executives from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and The HSUS are reviewing shelter applications thoroughly to make sure that each approved facility provides first-class care for the exported pets. Shelters that pass muster will still be required to hold the animals until September 30; the shelters will then be able to "conditionally foster" the pets from October 1 to October 15, meaning that the foster parent must surrender the animal if the original owner wants to reclaim the pet. After October 16, the animals can be put up for adoption.
Texan oil magnate T Boone Pickens generously funded a $50,000 (£28,000) airlift dubbed "Orphans of the Storm" in which 180 cats and dogs were flown 2,000 miles to California. More airlifts are expected to take place in coming days
"It was very odd to see all the seats on a Continental 737 filled with dogs and cats," said Wayne Pacelle, the President of the HSUS, which helped to organise the airlift.
Details of the animals will be posted on the Internet but identification is expected to take months. Any fostered pets unclaimed by December 31 this year will be permanently re-homed by HSUS.