Monday, August 31, 2009

The silver lining after the storm

Photos in this post courtesy of Pasado's Safe Haven, the Washington state-based animal rescue group I joined up with shortly after I arrived in the destroyed city.

I’ve never celebrated the anniversaries of tragic moments. I don’t even retain the dates. I see people remembering death and destruction on the days they fall annually by the calendar, when I just want to forget.

But this time, I’m making an exception. I can’t help but pay homage to the largest natural disaster in the United States. Because it was the biggest. And because I was there to witness its aftermath.

Four years ago today, I was glued to a TV screen watching the tragedy unfold with horror, knowing what was coming next. What would happen to the animals? I wasn’t the only one. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina had made landfall on the Gulf Coast, and the weeks that followed were nail-biters for animal rescuers across the U.S. and Canada.

When the storm surge came in Katrina’s wake, most of the levees protecting Greater New Orleans were breached—53 in all. Within hours, eighty percent of the city that’s nestled into a land basin was submerged, with water reaching 20 feet deep in some places. People ran and swam for their lives.

But citizens were forced to leave their most treasured belongings behind—their pets. As was tradition, the government refused to allow animals on the evacuation buses. Early footage began trickling out showing animals clinging to treetops, swimming beside boats, and paddling for their lives while they struggled to survive an abandoned city.

Because of widespread looting and violence, the city was locked down under a state of emergency, Louisiana’s version of martial law. The military threatened to shoot trespassers. And that included us.

But animal rescuers—a gritty and determined group—were infiltrating the city anyway. We are naturally programmed to help creatures in trouble. We couldn’t stand to sit back idly and watch. We had to get in.

Rescuers on the scene in the early days of the disaster were reporting their tragic findings via the Internet, telling us we could self-deploy, but no one would be responsible for our health and safety.

Noah’s Ark may not have been on hand to save the animals when the storm struck, but a cavalry of sorts wasn’t far behind. Independent of each other, thousands of rescuers of all stripes traveled to New Orleans to help with the largest animal rescue in world history.

Many thousands of pets would make it out alive thanks to people who ignored official orders, but obeyed their own laws of the heart.

As a result of Katrina, federal laws would be changed forever.

And so would we.

What’s up next on Carreen’s Rescue Blog…

Over the next few days, I’ll be writing short pieces on what we experienced in the field. Stories of tragedy and destruction, but also of hope and inspiration. It was a life-altering experience for those of us who tended to the victims of the floodwaters, and I'll take you there to see it through my eyes.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

He can run but he can't hide

Last week, I told you about Sugar Paw's penchant for snuggling into the blankets on my bed. Well, he was at it again today. As soon as I pulled the sheets off, he was already raring to get himself buried into his nest.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The velvet paw rules with an iron fist

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Perhaps the fumes from the hairspray impaired my fashion judgment. That's the story I'm sticking with, anyway. If you got me too close to the campfire, I would have gone up like a Roman candle.

Up until a year ago, I was regularly accused of being too harsh when writing about animal rescue. The blood, the guts, the gore. I told it all. I even wrote a manuscript for a children’s book that drove my focus group to tears.

But I didn’t do it for the sake of gratuitously shocking people. I wrote it raw because I wanted readers to see what I saw, to feel what I felt. To understand the untold suffering. I thought that if they were right there with me, they would grow motivated to take action.

Little did I know that writing the whole truth would accomplish just the opposite—nothing. The effect was reversed. The converted were traumatized and didn’t want to read about the horror they were already living amidst much of the time. In their leisure moments, they wanted to escape. And the outsiders just got annoyed and defensive about having the ugliness shoved in their faces.

One by one, people whose creative minds I respected told me it was too much. That I needed to tone it down. Soften the story. Wrap my words in velvet, so to speak.

I heard them, but—to be honest—didn’t really listen.

It wasn’t until I started writing my own rescue blog that the tides of understanding finally turned for me. I realized people would stop reading if everything I wrote was sad. It would be a mental overload and a downer and they’d never return to read my stories again.

I began to think in terms of ratios. I would write eight happy stories for every two sad ones I posted. Or seven to three. Or nine to one.

And seeking out the items with happy endings gave me an unexpected bonus result: a better frame of mind. I read once that we feel what we think. Seeking out the joyous stories for readers, the ones that bring me to tears—of inspiration, not pain—propelled me to start living in that happier, more optimistic space. Hope was restored again.

So yesterday when I ran the story about my interview with sports star Troy Westwood on the horrors of dog fighting and Michael Vick, I thought I’d close with a shot of a happier time. Troy and I in our teenaged awkwardness, dressed up in full fancy ‘80s regalia, on our way out to a family wedding.

I almost didn’t post the shot because I didn’t want to frivolously detract from the serious nature of my story. But remembering the advice from my creative mentors, I reluctantly decided to give the piece an upbeat ending.

Little did I know my atrocious ‘80s hairdo would be what caught readers’ eyes, and give them something to laugh at. Every email I received mentioned the bird’s nest appropriate for a bald eagle.

So, in the spirit of good humor, I’ve dug up a few more for your viewing pleasure.

Let’s just say my hair is ending this story on a high note.

Notice the top of my hair didn't even fit into the photo. It wasn't the first time that happened in a picture.

Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press

Who could forget the crimping iron?

When I wrote for the Winnipeg Free Press in Manitoba, there would always be times when photographers needed a model at the last minute. Here I had been dragged in to get the shot for a story about the fur industry. I was already rescuing animals and clearly not impressed with modeling the coat. I remember feeling pretty disgusted about being wrapped up in dead animal fur.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Troy story

Troy Westwood's notoriety north of the line rivals Vick's prominence stateside.

Anybody even vaguely acquainted with me knows that I am no Sporty Spice. I was the kid hiding out in the bathroom stall at school during gym class. I’d lock the door and stand on the toilet seat to make my feet invisible to hall monitors searching for stragglers.

So when Michael Vick was given the go-ahead to play in the NFL, I was astonished that his reputation as a sadistic dog torturer hadn’t tanked his career. And when the Philadelphia Eagles signed the quarterback for a cool $7 million two-year contract, my amazement grew.

As an outsider looking in, I’ve noticed that sports stars are portrayed as being more than athletically gifted. Much emphasis is also placed on them being stellar community leaders involved in charities and other high-minded pursuits.

In my struggle to understand the Michael Vick issue from all angles, I called up an old friend—who’s also my high school sweetheart, by the way—because I knew he would throw fresh light on the controversy. He’s articulate and outspoken, and controversial at times in his own way.

Just like Vick, Troy Westwood is a #7, but he played in the CFL. The 17-year veteran kicker for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is the longest-serving player, and holds more than 30 team records. He’s the fourth-best scorer in CFL history. The 290 games he’s played ranks seventh in league history. His retirement last year has him most certainly bound for the Hall of Fame.

These days, he's a morning co-host on QX104 FM radio in Winnipeg, and a case manager for Family Connections, an inner-city organization that reunites children with their parents.

Troy had watched Vick’s interview on 60 Minutes last Sunday, and he didn’t take his comments at face value.

“Any time you have to read from a written statement, I’d question how from the heart it is,” Troy said, although he added that he’s reluctant to judge Vick’s sincerity from afar.

Troy said the 18 months Vick served of his 23-month sentence was too short, in his opinion. But he also believes in second chances.

“If someone comes out of incarceration, man or woman, they should be allowed to seek employment. That’s his profession. Someone’s got to be willing to offer you employment.”

Troy explained that Vick’s signing wasn’t surprising. And that—in the face of a sporting culture focused on winning—animal lovers might view it as a victory that so many teams refused to sign a player with such promise.

“All that matters is winning. That’s the culture of professional sport. Winning is it.”

Because managers’ heads land on the chopping block if a team doesn’t nab the wins, that means anything goes, Troy said. “There are rapists and murderers in the NFL. Any means justifies the end in professional sports.”

Troy wasn’t surprised to hear about Vick’s dog fighting involvement, because he’s heard locker room chatter about the blood sport before.

“For the past 15 years, I’ve heard guys from the southern states talking about it. It’s cultural,” Troy said.

I asked him: Is it even possible for a man who spent five years inflicting torture and suffering upon dozens of innocent animals to have the ability to change after a short stint in jail?

“The answer to that question only Michael Vick knows,” Troy said.

Whether Michael Vick plays or doesn’t play, repents or doesn’t repent, I know this much is true—his arrest has been a godsend for bringing dog fighting and its inherent cruelty into the public spotlight.

And while sports fans will be watching Vick's performance when he's on the field, animal rescuers around the nation will be watching him, too—for how he plays outside the stadium.

Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Troy and I were on our way to his uncle's wedding when this shot was snapped. I was 16. Yes, it's true it took some guts for me to post this. I'm cringing at my '80s big hair and the shoulder pads. There are some trends that should never make a comeback.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Seeing red results in bloody posting

Trixie the pit bull begs for a home at the Richmond Animal Protection Society in British Columbia.

After two decades of toiling in the trenches of animal rescue, I’ve finally learned that it’s wise to keep my cool if humanly possible. And not just for the sake of my own personal safety—it’s a more effective way to present my message.

Whenever I feel the heat of rage rising, I chant a mantra to myself: “Remember the mission.”

Well, most of the time.

This week, when dog fighting felon Michael Vick was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles for a two-year contract worth nearly $7 million, my cool rose to red-hot in a matter of moments. And the boiler was cranked up even higher when I talked to members of the general public about the issue, particularly sports fans. Most said he deserved a second chance. That he had served his time, paid his debt to society, and now it was time to let him play.

I was mad. So I uploaded a photo of one of Vick’s victims as my Facebook profile photo. And I put the photo on this blog, too. My rationale was this: if we can’t even bear to look at just one of the survivors of his Bad Newz Kennels compound, how could we endorse allowing him to play?

The picture was gory. In retrospect, the posting might not have been the best course of action. The animal lovers were supportive, but they didn’t deny the photo was upsetting. I ended up feeling conflicted about making them look at something they’d rather not see.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sweeter than sheet cake

Yesterday I posted a photo of my cat Sugar Paw, formally known as Henry Pissinger because of his compelling duality: a zest for spraying urine coupled with a knack for negotiating spats between cats.

In the picture, he was peeking out from between the sheets. But I failed to tell you the whole story. On several occasions, Sugar Paw has found himself mid-flight, snatched from his warm nest when I've decided to change the sheets. Keep in mind I do this task every couple of days. When you have nine cats, the bed quickly turns into a fur-infested litter box.

Today he came rushing out as soon as he felt the covers rustling, so he didn't take a trip on the flying carpet.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The eyes belie

Who would believe this sweet face could cause so much destruction?

Ménage à meow

There's always some cuddling going on in my nine-cat household. The biggest cat bundle I've ever seen is five. Here's a threesome that gets together on a regular basis.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I know why the caged bird sings

This is the cage I found myself inadvertently trapped inside when the locked door slammed behind me.

I was scrubbing my warehouse from top to bottom last weekend when I decided to give the outside of the doors a much-needed washing down. It was going fine until I got to the back door, which is screened in for a makeshift porch that surrounds it. It was built for Madison, one of my cats who has lived here on and off.

One side of the enclosure used to have a screen door. Unfortunately I forgot that the door had been removed and replaced by plain screening after a burglar broke it down last summer.

But that realization didn’t hit until the locked door banged closed behind me.

The screen’s not the flimsy kind, either. It’s the heavy-duty nylon-coated polyester advertised as “indestructible”, designed for pets and guaranteed to be impenetrable. Even against the most determined paws and claws.

Or fingers, in my case. I squeezed them through a small hole in the screen and tried to open it wider to no avail.

In this nearly vacant industrial park, no one could hear my pitiful, somewhat sheepish cries for help.

Standing inside the screened box, I knew how a caged animal feels. Helpless. Nervous. Powerless. And uncertain. About how much time would elapse before rescue.

Some minutes passed before I concluded no one was coming to help. It was up to me to take action. A short 2 x 6 piece of wood used to prop the door open would make an ideal battering ram. Slamming it against the edge where the staples met wood, I was able to pop the staples loose from the beams. I scraped my body through the sliver of an opening. It felt like crawling through barbed wire as the metal points scratched and cut my skin.

But I barely noticed the scrapes in my rush to get out into the open again, where the air seemed fresher.

For a few moments, I had been trapped like a bird in a cage, giving me new perspective on what the animals go through at the hands of human beings. How it feels to be at the mercy of people standing outside the cage walls.

Whether animal or human, there's something we have in common. We all just want to be rescued, freed from the cages that close us in.

Writer's note: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is poet Mayo Angelou's 1969 autobiography about her childhood.

Monday, August 17, 2009

New meaning to the words "cat box"

Little Carreen and Sam recline in the makeshift furniture they dreamed up.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

From Bad Newz to worse

A message to the Philadelphia Eagles and Roger Goodell: If Michael Vick had committed these stomach-turning acts on dozens of human beings in his Bad Newz Kennels torture compound, would we even be having this debate? Animals have less power than human beings. And they are just as deserving of compassion and humanity.

It's not about the right to earn a living. It's about the privilege of earning millions to be a role model. Is this the person we want our children looking up to?

Someone who can torture helpless animals exhibits darkness of the heart that shouldn't be allowed to shine on a football field, or anywhere else for that matter.

Michael Vick's actions reveal dramatic disrespect for innocent lives.


Clearly the cats don't like me to travel, and will do anything in their itty-bitty power to come along for the ride.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Love is...a summer kiss

Sunday, August 9, 2009

What a strange way to sit

Sometimes I've seen cats lying this way, and it always stops me dead in my tracks. I feel compelled to watch -- they usually don't do it long -- until they change position. In my experience, very few cats seem to be flexible enough to attempt this.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A deerly held moment for flora and fawn-a

First, I have to apologize for the less-than-stellar photos, but it's worth it. Check out the treat I had tonight!

Two deer -- I presume a mom and baby -- stopped by for a snack of dandelions, clover and buttercups. They love the field that surrounds my home because it's completely indigenous, which to manicured lawn lovers might seem distastefully overgrown. But the indigenous vegetation feeds the flora and fauna (or in this case, fawna) that are native to the region. That alone makes it appealing to me. And the fact that I'm hopeless as a gardener doesn't hurt.

I couldn't risk walking outside to scare them, so you're looking through my windows. The little one came closer went he saw me watching him, gazing intently as if wondering what I was up to.

I didn't even notice this wormhole into the forest until I saw the deer disappear into it. There must be animal-shaped trails all over this place. I don't traipse through there because it's thorny, but these animals are designed to travel through brush.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Indelible ink spells love and devotion

Kyra's dog Phantom is gone but not forgotten. The mock-up of her desired tattoo includes the words "We all have a guardian."

I’ve never considered getting a tattoo.

It's not the pain that bothers me. It's the permanence. The pretty pictures might mesmerize me now, but the thought of watching the ink stretch and wrinkle while the years tick by is depressing.

So when the 12-year-old daughter of a university chum pronounced she was going to get one when she was old enough, I tried to talk her out of it. The three of us had been hanging out in a Whistler Mountain hotel room watching L.A. Ink, a television program that centers on the comings and goings at a Los Angeles tattoo parlor.

My explanation of the beautiful tattoo turning ugly one day held up until she presented me with her line drawing. Kyra Lambert wants to pay tribute to her dog Phantom, a Bouvier who died when she was five.

The thought was so touching that even I had to admit her tattoo would be beautiful in any format, at any age.

If only homes for animals were as permanent as tattoos. About eighty percent of companion animals won’t get a forever home, and will instead wind up in the incinerator or at a rendering plant to be turned into tires, fertilizer and cosmetics.

I have a feeling that when Kyra grows up, she’ll get her tattoo and some animals of her own to nurture.

And I’m confident that she’ll have both for life.

Kyra Lambert lost her Bouvier Phantom, but now she has her beloved poodles Diva and Shiraz.

Here's Kyra and her mom Kimothy Walker chilling on Whistler Mountain. Kimothy is an anchorwoman for CTV News in Ottawa, Ontario. We graduated from Carleton University's renowned School of Journalism together.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A lucky Penny resurfaces

Penny plays with Miracle, a dog featured in next year's Whatcom Humane Society calendar.

In a previous post, This Penny brought me good luck, I wrote to you about Penny Cistaro’s departure from Whatcom Humane Society. I’ve watched her work for almost a decade.

She left northern Washington State to head up the City of Sacramento’s Animal Care Services Department. It’s an important job -- she’s in charge of the animal shelter for the capital city in the most populous state in the nation.

And unfortunately, Sacramento doesn’t just host a large people population. About 60 percent of the animals who come into the shelter are euthanized.

Penny is a nationally renowned sheltering expert, and her arrival in northern California hasn’t gone unnoticed. Reporter Cynthia Hubert of the Sacramento Bee wrote an intelligent and illuminating article about her called Sacramento animal shelter aims for happier tails.

A bored meeting

When it's hot, the cats don't want to do much except lay around. The record heat wave in the Pacific Northwest leaves them pretty lazy. I can't blame them.