A Day In The Life – October 2005

In October 2005, Alexandra traveled to Tylertown, Mississippi where she spent 3 days volunteering at a temporary shelter for animals abandoned in the aftermath of the recent hurricanes. The following is her account. For more information about volunteer opportunities, please visit Best Friends Animal Society.

Day #1
Saturday, October 14th, 2005

After Hurricane Katrina, I was haunted by images of animals abandoned in New Orleans, trapped, scared and starving. I had tried to go down there 10 days after the storm, but was told that I would just be in the way, as there were enough volunteers and resources such as gas, clean water and food were at a premium. My pain over the plight of the animals surprised me: several nights I was awakened by bad dreams, and during the day I felt a pall over me. I cried when I read articles in the newspaper or heard stories about abandoned New Orleans animals on the radio. So when my friend, Chris DeRose, the founder of Last Chance for Animals (www.lcanimal.org), called me on October 9 and said that he had just come back from the Best Friends Animal Society (www.bestfriends.org) rescue operation in Mississippi and they needed volunteers, I knew I had to go. I immediately made plane reservations and emailed my friends to see if anyone wanted to join me. Vietly, who had joined me in protesting the Iraq War (see my account of getting arrested); vigiling and registering voters (see photos in Activism section); and several anti-war banner drops, among other adventures, volunteered. Vietly, by the way, is also the creator and webmaster for this site – so not only is she a dedicated activist with a huge heart, she is also a very talented website designer!

The Best Friends animal rescue operation is temporarily set up in Tylertown, Mississippi, 2 hours from New Orleans. Each day a small group of volunteers goes to New Orleans and brings back animals that are trapped in empty homes or running scared in the streets. Believe it or not, even 6 weeks after the flooding of New Orleans, animals are still being found alive. Over 100 volunteers remain at the sanctuary in Tylertown, taking care of the hundreds of rescued cats and dogs (and an occasional snake, iguana, and duck). Every night, at least a dozen terrified, hungry and often sick animals come in. Every day, people from all over the country travel to Tylertown and take animals out to get them fostered in their home states. No animal can be adopted until 3 months after it has been found – this allows the evacuees time to find their pets.

Vietly and I drive to Tylertown early the morning of Friday, October 14. We had both arrived in Jackson the night before, and, after 40 phone calls, Vietly secured us a motel room there. Rooms for the night are rare in Mississippi and Lousisiana – most hotels and motels are filled with evacuees or emergency workers. Many hotels in this area won’t let you reserve a room; you have to call each morning to see if there is availability for that night. Therefore, we have both come prepared to camp at the sanctuary. Luckily, the weather is warm and dry, and when we arrive at Best Friends we see dozens of tents and campers parked on the sanctuary property. We are met by the volunteer coordinator, Juliette, who sends me to one of the cat barns and Vietly to the computer center, where information on the animals going in and out of the sanctuary needs constant updating.

There are about 60 cats in the cat barn, each in cages with a bed, a litter box and food and water. It has always been upsetting for me to see animals in cages, but these cages are large and the place is quiet and serene. Most of the cats are sleeping, although, as I later learn, some of them are deeply traumatized by whatever they went through in New Orleans and are depressed. Others, such as the kittens, want to play, and the 5 volunteers in this cat area are constantly taking cats out of their cages and petting them. Then there is Tom, the black tomcat with the huge head, who likes to be walked around the premises on a leash!

I am put to work cleaning out litter boxes and cat bowls. I have to say Hallie and Yoda, my cats at home, only get their boxes cleaned out once a day, but here we do it twice. In the dog section, the dogs have large outdoor kennels, each with its own little swimming pool, as the weather here is still in the 80’s. There is no lacking for supplies: there are bins of dry and wet pet food, cat boxes and beds, feeding bowls, litter scoops, stacks and stacks of animal carriers of all sizes. This goes for humans too: the sanctuary kitchen is stocked with boxes and boxes of nuts, crackers, energy bars, cereals, sodas, and water; 3 meals a day are available for volunteers and there is a mini-store (shelves under a tarp, really) filled with anything you might have forgotten: sunscreen, bandaids, soaps. I later learn that most of this bounty comes from the generosity of Americans from all over the country: on Sunday, a truck from Missouri carrying 12,000 pounds of pet food arrives. The drivers are regular folks like you and me, who heard a call on the radio for help in delivering supplies to the hurricane area, and who selflessly drove several days to get to Mississippi and Louisiana. Many of them had never done anything like this before.

I spend my first day getting to know the routine with the cats: feeding begins around 8:30am and then each cage and litter box has to be cleaned. Animals that need meds are given them. During lulls, usually during the middle of the day, cats are taken from their cages and comforted. I bond with a cat with feline leukemia, and a cat that has to be isolated because it has herpes. I call them Leukemia Cat and Herpes Kitty. The cats that came in the night before still need to be seen by the vet – checked for any injuries or contagious diseases, defleaed and de-wormed. Until the vet sees them, they have to remain in another area. There is only one vet at the sanctuary at the moment – down from five a few weeks ago – so we don’t know when the new cats will be processed. If the vet or a veterinary assistant doesn’t come today, then tomorrow there will be double the number of cats to be processed through, as we are expecting new cats to come in from New Orleans tonight. No one likes a backup, so we hope to get the vet in soon.

At 5:30pm, most of the volunteers go to dinner. I stay behind and clean litter boxes with Vietly, as it is quiet and a nice opportunity to commune with the cats. Afterwards, I go over to the other cat house to see if they need help. They have just gotten in 16 kittens, and they are feeding them. I am stunned at how desperate these cats are to eat: they inhale the food, and as I place second helpings in their cages they lunge to get at the food. They would have eaten thirds but we decide it will make them sick and put dry food in instead. At 8pm, we get 5 new cats in, and now the vet is here, so they, and the ones rescued yesterday, can be checked and processed. My job is to bring the cats from their cages to the medical room, and then back to their new cages with the general population after they have been seen (provided they don’t have any communicable diseases). We also must thoroughly clean the cages the new animals are being transferred out of, because you never know when a new batch of rescued cats will be brought in. It is dicey handling a lot of the cats, because they are scared and many of them have been living on the streets for weeks, but I notice that the more attention they get, most of them quickly become docile. At 11pm, we are done, and Vietly and I drive to the hotel room Vietly has found for us, 20 miles away. We are both very tired, and we are grateful to be in a bed instead of in a tent!

Day #2
Saturday, October 15th, 2005

I oversleep this morning, because I am still on west coast time, so when we get to the sanctuary, the animals have all had breakfast. But there is a lot to be cleaned, so I get busy right away, while Vietly goes to input data for a few hours. I clean out litter boxes and wash feed bowls. The kittens make a mess because they fling litter everywhere, so you have to sweep the whole cage, but they are adorable. The cats that came in last night are acclimating – there is one special orange cat, probably about 6 months old, that one of the volunteers, Kathleen, names Eli and has fallen in love with. She is thinking about taking Eli back to Alabama with her when she goes, even though she already has a menagerie at home. Eli sticks his paws between the bars of the cage and pats you as you go by, so you can’t help but stop, take him out and hold him.

Wendy and Karon, volunteers from Minnesota, are leaving today, and will be taking a timid black female they have named Frances with them to foster. Vietly and I both want to foster EVERY cat, but we know that we cannot take even one: her brother, who is her roommate, is allergic, and I have 2 cats at home whose relationship is already strained. A third pet would be terribly stressful for them. Vietly cries when she sees a very scared kitty who has been at the sanctuary for weeks and still hides in the back of her cage. We have given her a catbed that lets her feel sheltered and gives her privacy. She is eating though, and that is better than the 2 cats who haven’t eaten at all since they were given up by their owner. Their owner is coming back on November 1 to claim them, after she gets her life in order, and I hope they are alive then.

Even though I am just cleaning, feeding and comforting, I have never felt so needed and so useful in all my life. I guess it is because these scared and disoriented animals are depending on us so totally. It feels like a holy act to soothe these scrawny, tentative cats, and I am honoured to clean up after them. In terms of a feeling of serenity and “this is where I want to be at the is exact moment”, being here beats meeting presidents and movie stars, going to fancy galas and traveling to exotic locales, without a doubt.

Vietly and I wander over to eat lunch midday. We pass by the dog runs. So many pit bulls! Apparently 50% of the dogs in Louisiana shelters are pitbulls, as dog fighting is big business in this part of the country. There isn’t much barking, the dogs seem content. Volunteers are walking a couple 3 legged dogs, and I see one woman eating lunch in a crate with a sick dog. I wonder if she has bonded with this one and will be taking it home to foster. So many of the volunteers have hearts bigger than Dallas, and the entire encampment is full of love and patience for the animals that are here. You rarely hear yelling or harsh talk.

After a vegetarian lunch, photos need to be taken of 15 of the newer cats. These photos will go on www.petfinders.com, so that owners can find their animals. It takes 3 people – Vietly, Bonnie and I – to get a half decent photo of each cat: one to make the kitty look up by shaking a noisy cat toy, one to hold the identifying card next to the animal, and one to take the photo! Some cats won’t let you pick them up, and some squiggle so much (the kittens) it is hard to get a picture that is in focus!

Some rescued cats came in earlier today. One of them is a big white cat called Suzy, who lived in New Orleans with her 84 year old owner for years. They weathered Katrina together until he had a nervous breakdown a few days ago and had to give the cat up. His son couldn’t take her, so she ended up here in Mississippi. I cry as I read the note that came with her. In the last line the owner asks that she goes to someone who will take good care of her, as she has been a wonderful companion to him and he will miss her. I wish I could take her home! Suzy lets me hold her, but she is listless and depressed. In contrast, there are 4 gray kittens that came in, and they wrassle with each other noisily in their cage.

We clean and feed, and at 7pm more cats come in. And then at 9pm the vet comes! We have at least a dozen new cats that need to be looked at, so 6 volunteers go into the medical area with the vet and her assistant. I ferry cats back and forth to them like last night, cleaning cages in between. Dog volunteers come in and pet cats, as their work stops at dark since there are no outside lights in the dog areas. At midnight, as I am outside washing out cage liners with the hose, 4 policemen with rifles come into the sanctuary – apparently someone who is armed is near the premises trying to steal pitbulls. I don’t have time for the drama, though, as there are cats to be tended to! One tiny kitty with a respiratory problem has to be isolated so no other cats are infected. Another cat is so ferile he has to be brought from his cage in a net, and even that doesn’t stop him from ferociously fighting during the entire checkup. At 1:30am, Vietly and I finally drive away to the motel. The cats have all been cleaned, fed and tended to. Tomorrow, it will start all over again.

Day #3
Sunday, October 16th, 2005

Our last day here. We get to the sanctuary earlier than yesterday, and I start cleaning right away. Sometimes you know what you have to offer: I have no veterinary skills, but I am a good cleaner! I do help give meds to 2 kittens, though – the one with the respiratory illness from last night, and a rambunctious gray one, “Ratboy” who ate rat poison because it was the only thing left in the house in which he was found . And I take Leukemia Kitty, Herpes Kitty and Suzy out of their cages for some lovin’. Suzy is still despondent, and I give her a cat bed which she can disappear into, a little cat “house” with 4 sides and a roof, as cats often feel safe in small, dark spaces. A vet comes by early and we find out that 2 cats are pregnant. Yikes – more kitties to find homes for. The vet tries to give some liquid intravenously to one of the cats that hasn’t eaten in so long, but there is a huge scuffle and I don’t know if they ever got anything in her. I look away – I have trouble seeing the animals upset, even if it is for their own good, which is why cleaning is such a good job for me.

A big truck from Minnesota arrives carrying 12,000 pounds of pet food. The drivers are planning to give away the pet food and pick up 100 animals to take back for adoption. They are all volunteers like us, and most of them have never done anything like this before – they simply answered a plea on the radio for help in distributing pet food in Louisiana and Mississippi, and to bring back animals that need homes. Because most of the animals at the Best Friends rescue operation here in Tylertown cannot be adopted until 90 days after they have been found, they don’t take animals from us, but they do drop off lots of supplies and come in to pet the cats. They will travel on to Louisiana to pick up cats and dogs from other shelters. I am impressed with all of these people: they are ordinary folks giving of themselves in an extraordinary way, uprooting their lives for a few days to help bring relief to this ravaged area.

A tiny orange kitten that arrived a couple days ago needs a bath to get rid of the flea dirt. Judy, a volunteer from Utah, has washed cats before, but I haven’t, so we do it together. Danny from Dallas helps. This kitten is miserable during the bath, and it breaks my heart. He oesn’t whine or wiggle. I sort of wished he would, as it would show more spirit and be more normal for a kitten, instead of this beleaguered, defeated limpness. Judy wraps him up in a towel afterwards so he stays warm and holds him in the sun for a long time.

During dinner, Vietly and I clean out litter boxes and then feed the cats. It is quiet in the cat house then, and the cats are mostly sleeping. Vietly is a naturally quiet person, and I think the cats appreciate her calm demeanor. One thing I have noticed here is how loudly we humans speak! This place, only 2 weeks ago converted from a tool shed to a cat house when the main cat cabin became full, echoes like crazy with its stucco walls and concrete floors. I tend to speak with energy, so I have to make a conscious effort to keep my voice down around the animals, as they have had enough chaos in their lives already. The thing they need most of all now is quiet love, care, and serenity. And some stability.

9 cats, 11 dogs and 2 tarantulas have been rescued in New Orleans today and will be arriving around 11pm. Vietly and I have to leave by 9:30pm so we can get to Jackson to catch our planes. We will not meet tonight’s influx of desperate, scared animals, but new volunteers are coming in tomorrow, and I know they will take good care of them.

Back in LA, I dream of rescued cats for 4 nights in a row. I don’t awaken feeling terrible, though, like I did before I went to Mississippi. I awaken missing soothing them, holding them. This trip has helped me feel better about the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina, and I hope that I, in turn helped a cat or two. I am no longer haunted, even though there are many, many animals still in need of saving, still trapped in homes in New Orleans.

I am not a religious person, nor do I think of myself as particularly spiritual, but I felt as close to God as I shall ever get cleaning out cages and comforting these rescued cats. It is hard to explain. My friend Johnny says God is found in service to others. I think I have been active in helping others all my life, but for some reason this experience was different. Is it because it was so basic, so simple –providing food, shelter and love for the sick, the scared, the lost? I don’t know. Perhaps you will have to experience it for yourself to see what I mean, and then you could explain it to me.

The Best Friends rescue operation still desperately needs volunteers to help in Tylertown, Mississippi. Please consider helping there or with the other animal rescue operations in the Katrina affected areas. IT IS NOT TOO LATE!!!!!

Go to:
info@kinshipcircle.org (desk) 314-863-9445 or (cell) 314-795-2646

For more photos of Alexandra’s trip to Mississippi, visit the activism gallery.

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