My old truck was crammed to the gills with pet crates and carriers and veterinarian supplies several vets in my area had donated – and I was finally heading down to the Gulf Coast – after totally frustrating bureaucratic delays. 

Day One

Unfortunately, my radiator blew in a small town outside St. Louis.  I had to leave my truck there, and someone kindly gave me a 60-mile ride to a truck rental place where I picked up another one, and re-loaded it, and took off again.  And I thought that was tragic.

But I really didn’t know what tragedy was, until I saw the Gulf Coast with my own eyes after Katrina. 

The most touching encounter I had was with a very old man, and his very old dog.  The old man’s head was all bandaged up, as was his right eye; and the faithful old Lab at his side was all bandaged up, too.  I spotted them slowly hobbling down a back road together, and offered them a ride.

They had lost everything but each other, and they were tickled pink to still be alive, and to still be together, and I’ll always wonder if that old man had saved that old dog in the storm, or if that old dog had saved that old man.

A woman and her daughter wandered into our pet rescue camp, to help us with saving animals – after losing everything they had owned in life.  They had been sleeping in a grocery store parking lot.

I had brought one of my old tents down to the base camp to sleep in, but I soon gave it to them, and gladly set it up for them – and they were as happy as if they were staying at the Ritz.

That old man and that old dog, and that woman and that girl taught me a valuable lesson about life, that’s for sure.

Five pet rescue base camps, or staging areas were quickly set up on the Gulf Coast, and the one I was working out of had no electrical power or running water for several days – and definitely no showers.

Thankfully, we soon got power and water, but never got showers – they were still building the showers when I left.

From the time I left home until last night, when I stopped at a hotel in St. Louis, I hadn’t had a proper shower – and I know I smelled like it, too.  My clothes were covered in fur, hairballs, cat and dog poop, animal saliva, and tons of bugs – I felt like I was a 6-year-old kid back at summer camp.

Base Camp

The best way to describe these pet rescue base camps that I can think of is to compare them to the field MASH units shown on the old TV series.  We set up an ‘incoming area’ where the dogs and cats were first delivered after rescue, a Triage area to treat injured animals, a small field hospital, and we built several makeshift dog kennels.  We also soon began housing the rescued cats in an old wooden building on the property.

I started out wanting to exclusively do rescue work since there were so many animals still out there, but I soon realized the sad shape the base camp was in, and I soon began helping folks doing a little bit of everything.

I helped build dog kennels; I went on scavenger hunts looking for needed supplies; I bought tons of garden hose and splitters and soon had a nice water system going in the dog runs; I helped out in the ER with the most severely injured animals; and I soon became the caretaker and foster mother for about 60 rescued dogs, responsible for feeding and watering them every day.  I also found little plastic kiddie swimming pools for a lot of these dogs – and they loved splashing around in the cool water – as did I!

I even fell exhaustedly asleep in one of the dog pens one night, surrounded by some of my 60 foster kids; and a young guy I was working with soon dubbed me, ‘Man Who Sleeps with Dogs.’  I kind of like that name!

Many of us worked 20-hour days, in the totally brutal heat and humidity, but it was worth every minute of it seeing the miraculous difference - and often remarkable recoveries - in many of these severely traumatized, terrorized, de-hydrated animals in a matter of spending only a few days with us.

Three veterinarians had arrived at our camp, with several vet techs, and I really liked working with one particular vet.  He really knew how to get down and dirty.

I found him one night about 3 AM, fast asleep with the entire front half of his body inside an animal crate he had been cleaning dog poop out of; he had exhaustedly fallen asleep with his head in there; and I just laughed and let him be.  At base camp, one had to grab a little sleep whenever and wherever they could.

I also met many fantastic dedicated animal loving volunteers from all over North America - and made some wonderful new friends.  There was even a group of Canadians down there who drove straight through from Ottawa.  And I especially liked an old hermit woodsman from Maine who has vowed to stay down there until every surviving animal has been rescued - and he is tireless - he put me to shame. After swapping some animal stories with him one night, he told me, "I don't care much for people; I like animals much better - but for a human, you're not too bad."  I thought that was a hell of a compliment!

One day, three dogs were found still alive under an old trailer, surrounded by 10 of their dead comrades; but they were barely alive, and we feared none of them would make it.

I sat up all night with one of them while a dedicated vet tech clipped off the tons of filthy oil and tar from his badly matted fur, and pumped him full of much needed fluids.

I really didn’t think he’d make it; one of his friends sadly didn’t.  But that old Chow did make it, and when we reunited him with his one surviving pal, a big old black Lab, they danced all around and joyously kissed each other like they knew they were true survivors – and they were.

A tiny Chihuahua was found floating on a cushion in someone’s swimming pool, baking out in the brutal sun for nearly two weeks; her entire face was scorched, and her eyes were both swollen shut – but she somehow made it, too.

And I really don’t know how – these animals’ will to survive is remarkable.  It was 120 degrees in the shade down there, and the humidity was brutal.  I was drinking about 15 bottles of water a day, and 6 bottles of Gatorade, and still felt weak and de-hydrated.  I also lost about 20 lbs.  Both volunteers and animals were keeling over from heat stroke and exhaustion almost every day.

A TV film crew showed up at our base camp one day, just about the time someone yelled out, “Ten Dogs in Heat Stroke!”

I grabbed two of those pups and jumped into a kiddie pool with them, and the TV crew filmed the entire episode – and interviewed me on camera holding the two dogs.  That episode aired last night, and the only thing that showed up on camera were one of my arms holding one of those now revived little pups.  (I was probably much too mangy looking at that point to be on camera anyway)

The three most unusual rescues so far have been a pet squirrel, a pet snake, and a pet turtle found in cages in a young boy’s bedroom.  Despite having no food or water for over two weeks, all three critters are doing remarkably well.

Reunions

The totally joyous part in our pet rescue efforts are the reunions when people actually find their lost pets at our base camp.

An elderly woman found her beloved old cat, the only thing she had left in the world – and she wept, and many of us wept with her.

A young couple showed up looking for their tiny poodle.  As they had boarded an evacuation bus, clutching that tiny dog in their arms, some nasty official had grabbed it from them, and callously flung it off the bus – as they had helplessly looked on as that bus had sped away.

I don’t know how that little Poodle survived on his own, but he did, and when they were reunited, I really couldn’t tell who was happier – that young couple or that tiny old poodle.  He joyously raced all around the camp, and even romped back to his pen to say good-bye to his new canine pals, as if he were wishing them good luck in finding their humans, too.

We also had scavengers coming into base camp at night; much of the food I had brought for myself disappeared the second day – but I guess the person who took it probably needed it more than me.  And luckily, the Red Cross showed up a few times to feed us; and towards the end of my stay, local folks and volunteers were showing up every night, cooking wonderful meals for us.

But sadly, towards the end of my stay someone also stole my camera, my camera bag, and all my film – and I had some wonderful pictures of recovering animals and happy reunions that I will never be able to replace.

Part Two ... 

©2005, Ed Kostro

A Cats Purr

"Cats make one of the most satisfying sounds in the world: they purr ...

A purring cat is a form of high praise, like a gold star on a test paper. It is reinforcement of something we would all like to believe about ourselves - that we are nice."

Roger A Caras

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