Their Last Hope Rescuing and Reuniting the Smallest Victims of Hurricane Katrina

April 13, 2010

In many cases, they were the smallest victims of Hurricane Katrina - the companion animals of those who lived in the area left desolate by the sheer force of Mother Nature. They were left behind for many reasons. Some were abandoned, yet others were left in their homes, with plenty of food and water, their owners believing they would be safe until the storm passed and they returned home. No one could have imagined how the hurricane would destroy towns, homes and an entire way of life.

While Barr was in New Orleans rescuing animals, Schooler worked from home to reunite them with their displaced guardians. She is pictured above with Grizz (left) and Buckeye (right), their family pets that they rescued from shelters.

 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, groups joined together to aid the victims and volunteers flocked to the areas hit hardest by the devastation. Many of those who couldn't volunteer their time donated money or supplies to the cause. Yet there was another group of unsung heroes who began their work two weeks after the hurricane hit, and they rescued thousands of animals still roaming the New Orleans area with no food, shelter or companionship.

Joining this cause were the husband and wife team of Steve Barr '88 and Heather Schooler '90.

"As soon as the hurricane occurred, obviously we were very concerned for both the people and the animals," said Barr, who is a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Rochester, NY. "We quickly became aware of the groups and individuals going to help hurricane victims. That's how we learned about Pasado's Safe Haven."

Pasado's Safe Haven, located in the Seattle, WA area, is one of the premiere animal rescue organizations in the United States, dedicated to 24-hour rescue and rehabilitation of dogs, cats and farm animals. The organization serves as a model for Barr and Schooler, whose long-term goal is to open an animal sanctuary of their own to provide refuge for animals with special needs, companion animals and animals typically used for food, as well as provide an opportunity for people to experience the inherent value of all living beings.

"Pasado's Safe Haven immediately dispatched a team with no planning for where they would stay, how they would get the job done or what they would do with the animals once they had been rescued," said Barr.

"Just after we were married, Heather and I rescued two cats left abandoned in a garage. Since that time, we have been deeply committed to animal welfare causes," he added. "When Hurricane Katrina hit, I said to Heather, 'I've got to go down and help.' It wasn't enough just to watch."

Barr joined with Pasado's, who had established a full-scale search and rescue operation that gained access to the city each day through military checkpoints. He arrived in the New Orleans area two weeks after the storm, beginning each day at 6 a.m., loading rescue supplies and joining with 20 or 30 other volunteers to enter the city and set up base camps.

"We went door to door, knocking and calling for animals, searching for any sign of life," said Barr. "At that point - two weeks after the storm - many animals were miraculously still alive, so we had to break into houses to rescue them. Believe me, the last thing I thought I would ever be doing was breaking into someone's home, but if there was a barking dog inside who hadn't been fed in weeks, I was going in the house by any means possible."

The Rescue of Indi Boy
By Steve Barr '88

On my last day of rescue in New Orleans during my second trip, I saw a dog run across the street. He had clearly been running as a stray for some time. He ran into a back yard that was completely fenced in. As I slowly approached him, I could tell he was scared - more than I can describe. I was as gentle as possible and put a leash around his neck. He did not want to move so I sat with him for a very long time establishing a mutual trust. I tried feeding him and giving him water. He was clearly very hungry but was very cautious of me. He finally agreed to let me feed him, then touch him and ultimately pick him up. We immediately became best friends. He was so sweet and longed for attention.

Barr pictured with Indi Boy in New Orleans shortly after his rescue.

As I befriended the dog, Heather came across a lost animal report on a dog named Indi Boy who she thought matched the description of the pup I had rescued. It was! She found his guardians living in Oklahoma. They were so happy to know Indi Boy was alive and being cared for in a foster home in North Carolina.

We have since maintained communication with Indi Boy's people and look forward to the day they are finally reestablished in New Orleans and can be reunited with their sweet and courageous Indi Boy. I think of him and all the animals I met during my time in New Orleans every day.

According to Barr, the volunteers would leave a full description of who rescued the dog and contact information. A nationwide network was established to care for the animals and foster them as the massive search continued to fi nd the owners of the companion animals - an effort to which Schooler was also a contributor.

Schooler remained in New York to care for their family of rescued animals while her husband helped in New Orleans. She volunteered time working with both the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and Best Friends Animal Society on a variety of tasks focused on reuniting guardians with their companion animals.

"While it was important for our own family for me to stay behind in New York, I also felt the urgency of the situation in the south and a great sadness imagining all the frightened animals without food, water or medical care," said Schooler, who is pursuing a master's degree in humane education from Cambridge College and the International Institute for Humane Education. "I was grateful when the ASPCA called and asked me to join with them in the effort of transferring rescued animals to shelters across the nation and to begin reuniting animals with their people.

"Steve called me every night from his car - where he, like many other volunteer animal rescuers in New Orleans and elsewhere, slept each night - to tell me about the animals they brought to safety that day and about the ones they were too late to rescue," she added. "Steve's reports kept me working into the early morning hours entering lost animal claims into databases and posting found reports to Internet sites to help rescue agencies, volunteers and animal guardians connect during the crisis."

"This was such important work," added Barr. "While not as visible as the actual rescue work in New Orleans, it was such a critical part of creating happy endings and helping all of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. "The entire process was really a team effort," he said. "I was in New Orleans helping to rescue the animals while Heather was 'holding down the fort' at home, spending her days helping to reunite many of those same animals with their guardians scattered all across the country."

After returning home from New Orleans, Barr joined Schooler in the day-to-day monitoring of the progress of Pasado's rescue mission. The organization gave updates through its website and Barr spoke with one of the founders of the organization on a daily basis.
"Two weeks after I returned home from New Orleans, about a month after the storm, rescuers were still finding animals alive," said Barr. "After reading about one puppy who was rescued from a sink in his home where he had been pulled by the receding flood waters, and though paralyzed by starvation, was still alive, I knew I had to go back. The situations these animals were in were so desperate and their courage and will to survive were beyond anything I could ever imagine."

Barr returned to New Orleans for a second week to aid in the rescue mission while Schooler continued her work at home.

"The courage of all of the volunteers in New Orleans -- risking their lives because of their love for the animals - was amazing," said Barr. "You can only imagine the devastation to the community and the environment - homes filled to their ceilings with flood waters, the mud, mold and extreme humidity and temperatures. By the time we arrived there, the people who had survived the hurricane had been rescued - but the animals remained with no one to feed or care for them. We crawled under houses and abandoned cars just hoping to find one more animal who could be reunited with his or her people."

For the many months that Pasado's was in New Orleans, the organization rescued over 1,200 animals themselves and the process of reuniting those pets with their owners continues today. There were many happy endings, including one for that starving puppy that was rescued from a sink by Pasado's volunteers. Today, he is living at Pasado's Safe Haven, happy and healthy.

"We were able to reunite some guardians with their animals while I was there," said Barr. "These were people who had lost so much, and one of the very few things they had to hold on to was the hope of finding their animals. They no longer had houses, cars or jobs, but in many cases, someone had saved their animals. It was just amazing to witness.

"It is a wonderful feeling to work alongside so many selfless people, people who left behind their families and their work to help those who could not fend for themselves," he added.

In addition to Pasado's, many other organizations assisted in the effort to rescue animals from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, including the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA and Best Friends Animal Society. Although these organizations were encumbered by the bureaucracy of the situation and weren't permitted to enter houses, their food drops and other assistance programs greatlybenefited the animals that were running loose in the city.

"What has been special for Heather and me has been the opportunity to contribute our time and compassion in different ways to a cooperative, interagency effort," said Barr. "We've been enthusiastic supporters of Pasado's Safe Haven for years, and my time with them in New Orleans has only strengthened my respect for the incredible work they do for the animals. The good work Pasado's and many other agencies and individuals did and continue to do in New Orleans and the hurricane ravaged south is a reminder to me that we must continue to advocate for the lifelong care of domesticated animals, to consider them in our preparations for future disasters, to see to it that all animal guardians have access to affordable veterinary care and spay and neuter services, and to consider adopting an animal from a local shelter or breed rescue group so that we can end the needless killing - hundreds every hour in the U.S. - of these innocent creatures.

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