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 Stories from Katrina Relief Volunteers

Reflections on Volunteering at Lamar Dixon Gonzales, LA.

[Lamar Dixon is the holding area where the pets abandoned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were brought. Most came from New Orleans.]

My experience volunteering at Lamar Dixon is one I will never forget. I have never worked with so many selfless, giving people in my life. From the moment we walked into Barn 1 the place was abuzz with activity. Everyone was either walking dogs, cleaning crates, giving medical treatment, or organizing supplies. My ACO friend, Bridgette, and I took a quick search around for someone in charge, and when we didn't find anyone, we just got to work, walking and cleaning crates. There was plenty to do. The work was endless, but everyone worked until they dropped. Several people showed us the ropes and also where to get bottled water and snacks. Many of the dogs were frightened, to put it mildly, so we would close the stall door and open the crate, stepping behind so as to easily loop the dog when he came out. That worked well for many of these dogs. It was so heartbreaking, knowing how terrified they were and imagining what they'd been through. I had several packages of hot dogs in my van for the occasion and went around giving treats and assessing behavior. One of the great things about volunteering at Lamar was that there was the freedom to use your skills. Nobody was saying, no, you can only clean crates or walk dogs. The work was overwhelming and there was no end to the dogs needing care. Despite my exhaustion, it was hard to get to sleep at night.

My first night there we slept in the van, in between the rest rooms and Barn 1. I woke up at 4:30 AM to hear the lone howl of a husky piercing the dull roar of ever barking dogs. I don't know why I heard that one above all the rest, maybe because I have fostered many huskies and know how they hate confinement. I got out of my sleeping bag and stepped into my clogs, grabbed a leash and made my way over to the barn, following the howl. He was in ICU, not in the critical care section, so the vet tech on duty was grateful for me to take him for a nice long walk. The dog practically danced all the way to the walking area. We enjoyed a nice walk together and met up with other early risers, all who had a story to tell. One vet tech had driven fifteen hours, then started helping at 5 AM and finished at 9:30 PM. That was typical. Another was up all night with a sick puppy who didn't make it, but she was comforted knowing the pup didn't die alone. The night before we met a woman who drove 20 hours straight, by herself, because she couldn't stand to watch it on TV anymore and had to do something. She said her friends and family thought she was crazy, but we all understood and welcomed her to our happy make-shift family.

In many ways Lamar Dixon was like a war zone. I remember walking past the small animals section one afternoon and a vet stopping me and asking if I could find him some Nutrical for a ferret. I happily ran off, searching frantically, enlisting the help of all sorts of volunteers, never finding it, but hearing that everyone had seen it someplace. We searched high and low. One vet tech showed me to her SUV, which was packed with boxes of supplies that looked like they had been rummaged through many times. She broke down and said she had been on her feet for seven days with very few breaks. She never got to unpack her truck in an organized way so she could not find anything. There were fire ants in her tent, too much chaos, and too much responsibility handed to her. It was time to go home. I felt bad about the Nutrical, but worse about the woman who was suffering from such burn out. I made a mental note to pick up Nutrical and also lettuce for the rabbits, and hot dogs, lots of hot dogs.

In a war zone emotions run hot. Even the calmest of souls were tested to the max and showed signs of frayed nerves. When lives are at stake, your instincts take over and if people frustrate progress with their "rules" you tend to lose all sense of composure. We saw that many times. The later the hour, the more likely people were to come to blows, especially at the Intake area. Intake was supposed to close at 8 PM sharp. It never happened because every rescue group would stay out until curfew and then line up at 7:55, so that the check ins would go on for many hours, even beyond midnight. My husband worked on Intakes and would come back after 3 AM sometimes. And this was after being out in the field every day doing search and rescue. We would get back at a decent hour so that he could jump out of the van and work on intakes.

The volunteers working on Intake were amazing. Imagine a long line of vans, trucks, flat-bed trailers, all loaded with sick and dehydrated animals. A medical team would race up and down the line, looking for "criticals" and then scurry them off to the triage area so they could be attended to. We had a young cat who was so emaciated it was painful to look at her, but even worse, her eyes were so infected that she looked like she had gone blind. When we pulled up to Lamar, we grabbed her carrier and held it up for the the triage folks to see when they came by. They grabbed her and ran. It brought tears to my eyes knowing that she was in the hands of such caring people. So many people put in very long hours every day. I never saw so many giving people together in one place. It kept me going.

In many ways working and living at Lamar was like being part of a commune. Every day we loaded up our van with dog and cat food, bowls, water, ice and whatever supplies we needed for the work of searching and rescuing in New Orleans. You could take as much as you wanted, but nobody took too much. You just took what you needed for the day. There would be plenty more supplies the next day. It was the same way with people food. You took what you needed. Fresh food would be there tomorrow. I wish everyone in every town in America could live like that, with nobody hoarding anything. This world would be a better place. I have hopes that someday the world will be like that, if not in this age, then when the Lord comes back. It is the greatest feeling to share what you have and also to have enough supplies to do the work you have to do.

And yes, I did see things that bothered me at Lamar. Pallets of good quality food sat perfectly shrink-wrapped, unopened, while the food made available for the emaciated pets were the cheaper brands. Why pallets of canned I/D were not made available to the emaciated dogs and cats, I will never know. Why perfectly good donated crates were tossed into the dumpster by paid staff, I will never know. Someone should explain the reasoning behind that. At least make them available to departing rescue groups. The most disturbing thing was watching the paid staff go into their air-conditioned trailers for their showers, while the hundreds of volunteers had to share one bathroom, each with two shower stalls. No matter what time of day or night you chose to take your shower (and you had to wash off the toxins), there was a long line. One morning I took my shower at 2:30 AM and there were two people ahead of me. The showers were never cleaned and supplies inadequate. Nevertheless, the volunteers would share their own supplies or buy them. At different times you would find a gallon jug of shampoo in the shower, or someone would go out and buy a whole basket of girlie supplies and leave them in the bathroom for everyone to share. For every tight-fisted staff person, there were a hundred generous volunteers off-setting it, so I can't really complain. My faith in the human spirit has been restored over and over with the memories that I cherish from volunteering at Lamar Dixon.

Shirley Moore

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