Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A photo that barked a thousand words

This is the photo of Walley that spoke to Alyssa Winters at the photo lab that day. All photos courtesy of Adrian Hitt Photography.

About a quarter of us meet the love of our life in the workplace.

For Alyssa Winters, that’s exactly how it happened.

The Minnesota photo lab technician was having a regular workday in the mounting department watching the images roll by. And then one face stood out from all the others.

You could say his picture barked a thousand words.

It’s not like Alyssa doesn’t have her share of animals to gaze upon. Six days a week—24 hours a day—the White House Custom Color lab in Eagan processes images for professional photographers.

“Being an animal lover like myself, this happens about a million times a day with all the photos I see of dogs,” Alyssa said.

That’s what made her chance encounter with Walley even more random than it already was.

“There was something about Walley's photo. Just the look in his eyes, I can still feel it. I looked and looked and looked at that photo all day.”

Within hours, she had contacted the shutterbug named Adrian Hitt who had sent in the digital files depicting the Catahoula Leopard-American bulldog mix named for his walnut-colored coat.

In her spare time, the Tennessee-based photographer parlays her picture-making skills into raising public awareness for the plight facing millions of animals euthanized in the United States every year. Arming rescued animals with professional photographs of themselves helps puts their best paws forward to potential adopters.

In Walley’s case, it was a shoot in mid-January for a Nashville-based rescue group called Camp Chaos 37206 that landed his photos at White House Custom Color this past February. The dog had been rescued trotting down the street on New Year’s Eve with a rope around his neck.

Adrian suggested Alyssa get in touch with Camp Chaos.

“I worked with a volunteer named Jen and filled out the application and references. I had her become my friend on Facebook because we have another dog at home and I wanted her to see how his life was. It was hard with me being here and them being there. It was a huge trust building moment on both ends.”

A week and a half later, Alyssa was on a plane headed from the north to the south to meet Walley. And that night she brought him home.

“Walley has made me so happy. My husband is in love as well. He's also a huge animal lover and says that Walley was meant to be.”

Alyssa and her hubby aren’t the only ones thrilled with the new addition. Walley’s dog brother Maynard is overjoyed.

“He has been a huge happiness to Maynard,” Alyssa said. “They play together and take walks together and kiss and love each other. Maynard has always been social and I have wanted another dog for quite a while but it just never felt that right ’til I saw Walley.”

Alyssa didn’t just save Walley. She’s using his snuggly, calm personality to educate others about pit bulls, a group of dogs often unfairly maligned by the media.

“Everywhere I take him he gets noticed because he's so handsome and people are very curious about a 'pit bull' you know? So I take it as my chance to educate people about bully breeds and adoption as well.”

Now that’s what I call a Kodak moment.

The atmosphere sparkled with love at first sight when Alyssa flew from Minnesota to Tennessee to meet Walley.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


This dog posed for me. Notice the Bellingham Herald building in the background.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Princess and her Bean

Kristopher Wentworth adopted Princess, the little dog on the left, just three weeks ago. He's letting Isabella -- otherwise known as Bella Bean -- take Princess under the paw to show her the ropes in dogness. So far it's going well. Can't you tell?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A vow to be there

A Jewel of a girl shares a laugh with Mokie, a gem of a cat.

In sickness and in health.

That’s a promise human beings make to each other. That we will be there no matter what. Through thick and thin. In good times, and in bad.

But it’s a promise that’s broken often.

Except by the animals. They don’t know any other way to be.

This morning, I stopped in to visit my dear friend Julie Davis, whom I affectionately call Jewel. We met eight years ago, connecting instantly because of two twinned traits: an offbeat sense of humor, and our love of animals. We both support our local animal shelter—the Whatcom Humane Society—and sit on the board of the capital campaign committee together.

Julie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer on June 30. Just two weeks later, she faced major surgery at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. Ninety-eight percent of the cancer was cut out of her. She’s undergoing chemotherapy until the end of the year to eradicate the rest.

Family and friends have rallied around Julie since she was diagnosed. But no one has been there for her as steadfastly and loyally as her two cats.

Eight-year-old Mokie and 12-year-old Ricky don’t leave Julie’s side for long.

Chemotherapy compromises the immune system, so it’s been suggested that Julie should consider placing her cats elsewhere until she’s all better.

But she won’t hear of it. She’s donning gloves and a face mask to clean their litterboxes. She’s always got a bottle of antibacterial gel standing by, just in case the cats squeeze in a comforting lick on her hands or face.

The cats keep Julie’s spirit supported when she’s feeling sad. They make her laugh and provide comfort. And when the magnitude of what she’s facing becomes almost too much to bear, they don’t mind if she cries into their fur.

Mokie and Ricky aren’t the only animals comforting ill people. Across the nation, nursing homes and hospital wards are now welcoming animals into their fold because they buoy patients’ spirits, assisting recovery while improving day-to-day quality of life.

Julie knows the next few months will bring good days, and bad days.

But that’s easier to bear with Ricky and Mokie at her side. Because they’ll be there with her, for better or for worse.

Do you feel inspired to help Julie, or stay updated on her progress? You can follow her journey and offer support on her Caring Bridge website.

Julie and her mom Maxine shared a laugh on the La-Z-Boys she bought recently to aid her convalescence. Maxine cut her hair bristle-brush short to match her daughter's hairdo as a gesture of support. Mom wanted you to know that they were reclining because neither was feeling well. Maxine had a sore leg, while Julie felt sick from chemo. Still, there was great beauty in shared pain. Notice Mokie posing on the window ledge.

This blonde ale's on tap

I'm still out there on the road writing. Today I met Sirus. She's an eight-year-old yellow Labrador. But she's a whiter shade of pale than yellow. She resides in Anacortes, a community found on Fidalgo Island in northern Washington state.

Sirus is a lucky pup, and she knows it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A cozy catnap

Here's about all that's going on today at the cat house.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Watching the paws go by

Justin Hadaller (left) and Kyle Burt hang with Tatayana and Dakota.

While I love working in the solitude of my forest, there are times when I crave white noise. A din of background sound was the backdrop against which I learned to write as a 19-year-old cub reporter in a busy newsroom.

When the buzz bug bites, I take my laptop into the world to write from busy places. There’s an added bonus: I find photo opportunities and stories begging to be told all over the place.

On my travels today, I met Justin. I approached him because I thought his dogs might make a nice photo.

It turns out the dogs aren’t his. At 25 years old, Justin believes he’s still too young to make a lifelong commitment to an animal. So for now, until he gets his own dog or two, he volunteers to dogsit for friends, and he does it for free. Today he was watching 10-year-old Tatayana, a Husky, and Dakota, a Malamute who’s five.

Even though they barely know each other, they are clearly in like.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kids would rather read to dogs

Jane Talbot's struggles with dyslexia inspired her to participate in the program that has children reading to dogs.

When Jane Talbot was a tiny girl, visions of monsters under the bed weren’t what she feared most.

It was words on a page that frightened her.

Jane was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was six. The prospect of trying to read in front of other kids was paralyzing. The sentences looked like a jumbled mess. In her mind’s eye, words jumped ahead of their proper place, causing her to read them out of order.

“I had a fear of reading out loud – it was intimidating and terrifying to me,” said Jane, who has been volunteering at Whatcom Humane Society (WHS) for ten years.

Jane is 41 now, but the memory of that fear is still fresh. As if she were still attempting to decipher text while standing in front of a classroom of kids. Or attending college, where a creative administrator skirted Jane through the red tape by categorizing her as a visually-impaired student. That way, she was allowed to access textbooks on tape. By hearing and reading the words simultaneously, her comprehension increased.

And she graduated.

Jane’s experience motivated her to help other kids struggling to read. This past fall, she and her Labrador-Shepherd cross Betty participated for the first time in the four-year-old WHS reading program Dog Day Afternoon.

“I thought I could help kids in the program break down their barriers,” Jane said. “It’s so rewarding to see these kids reading to the dogs.”

Betty and other listening dogs around North America work miracles for children’s literacy. The dogs provide an attentive, non-judgmental audience for young readers. They don’t criticize or laugh. They don’t act bored, hurried and impatient. They are there just to listen.

Even kids who know how to read flock to these dogs just for fun, growing their vocabulary and public speaking skills in the process. But the greatest beneficiaries by far are those who have obstacles to reading and speaking.

Golf great Tiger Woods is one famous example. Tiger used to stutter. Before facing a human audience, he would practice speeches and presentations in front of his dog, Boom. He was building confidence with the help of his dog. Eventually he realized that if he could do it for Boom, he could also win the people over.

“Adults can be intimidating – the dogs are not judgmental,” says WHS outreach director Laura Clark.

The popular WHS Dog Day Afternoon program moves from library to library in Whatcom County for one-month stints every spring and fall. There is usually a waiting list. During the afterschool hours of 4 to 6 p.m., kids start cycling in for 30-minute sessions to meet with the dogs and their guardians. Many kids had younger siblings in tow.

This past fall, I attended a session at the Fairhaven library. Every half hour, a new batch of kids crowded at the doorway in anticipation, clearly excited for their turn to come. One little girl who didn’t want to miss her chance hobbled in with a broken leg that sported a bright pink cast.

Kids develop a love of reading while bonding with their listening dog.

“I like reading to dogs because I like animals. I really like reading and I really like dogs,” said eight-year-old Fern Beach.

Parent Tonya Lockman brought her eight-year-old son and kindergarten-aged daughter to the Fairhaven library.

“We try to make it every fall and spring because it’s hysterical fun,” Lockman said. “It was a big deal when my daughter could read to her own dog. She was very proud and excited.”

On this night, the listeners at the Fairhaven library are all rescue dogs. The program has an unexpected spin-off effect for the shelter – it piques a kid’s interest in animals, particularly rescued animals. So much so that some drop by the WHS shelter with their parents to adopt cats and dogs, Clark said. Kids also shed their fear of dogs.

“These dogs are kid tested and approved,” Clark said. “This gives the child a chance to learn about dogs with friendly animals.”

The librarian watching the session beamed as children read to their chosen dogs.

“It fulfills librarians’ dreams to see kids reading,” said Donna Grasdock, Fairhaven library specialist for the Bellingham Public Library. “It almost makes me cry.”

Do not try this at home

All day, my email box pings and bings with stories. Right now, I have more than 100 tales I'm trying to find the time to write. Some sad, some inspiring. All important. It's just a matter of eking out the moments to get them down in the midst of life's commitments.

While the rescue people send along many items that make me cringe, they also email me warm fuzzies that make me laugh out loud in pure delight.

I don't endorse this activity, but the cuteness factor was too high not to post. I wish I knew who had taken this shot. If anyone out there does know, please tell me so I can give credit where it's due. For now, I'll have to thank "Anonymous" for this photo of a water-worthy wiener dog on a board. Hang ten, Shorty.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Doing the dog paddle

I've spoken to several professional photographers who look down their noses when asked if they've considered taking pictures of animals.

They seem to think that it's beneath them. That unless their subject is inherently human, they are somehow less than. They don't get that capturing an animal's traits -- both human and non-human -- can be just as challenging and profound as the rewards garnered from people portraiture.

If only they would step outside themselves to regard the magnificence of another species.

Brooke Mayo is a shutterbug who is fully cognizant of the beauty that walks on four legs. The North Carolina photographer has poured her canine crush into a new book launched this week, and the images are stunning. It's called Diving Doggies: A Celebration of Play Underwater. You can buy it on Brooke's website.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

On the road again

Ed Kost and his cats Princess and Jasmine are living in transit now.

I was strolling through the glass doors as I exited my bank this week when a 1978 Ford Fairlane parked in the lot caught my attention.

I circled behind the faded orange car to take a better look. I think it piqued my interest because there was a time in my past when I’ve called a vehicle home. It taught me how to spot the signs of a rolling residence. Extra clothing, toiletries, all the tiny comforts squirreled away into the little pockets of a vehicle interior.

Or maybe it was the paws that gave me pause.

Two fluffy cats were perched on the car seats with their backs to me. I’ve seen lots of dogs in cars waiting for their guardians, but never a cat. And here were two of them intently watching the bank door, waiting for their master to return. I noticed they were wearing collars, implying someone loved and protected them.

I didn’t want to ambush an owner at close range who might be potentially defensive about a tough situation. To minimize the chance of face-to-face conflict, I crossed the lot and waited beside my vehicle for him to come back.

It took a little while, but 15 minutes later, he appeared. I walked up slowly and explained my purpose. I talked about how pretty his cats were, but didn’t wait long before I got around to gently asking my main question: was he living in the car?

It turns out he was glad I asked.

Ed Kost spent the next hour with me, talking about how a man who had pulled his life together more than once had everything taken from him yet again. And this time, it happened just as he was entering his golden years. Ed, who recently turned 65, lost his house of 28 years. That was just seven weeks ago.

But, “it doesn’t feel that recent when you’re doing this,” he told me.

He’s a recovered alcoholic, and had been working as a chemical addictions counselor at St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham, Washington. Then a car struck him down while he was out for a jog, breaking his pelvis. Ed lost his job in an economy where work is scarce. And he couldn’t find a new one once he’d healed.

Before he knew it, Ed got behind on mortgage payments. The bank closed in.

He’d enjoyed a big property, a shop, and 17 cars to call his own. And now he was forced to live in one of them.

“The sheriff said load your car up and go.”

But Ed isn’t letting his latest run of bad luck take one of the last things he owns, that thing he’s worked the hardest to earn.

His sobriety.

The meetings are keeping him going, and he goes to several of them a day. It passes the time and provides social interaction. And there’s strength in that support.

“My ass is getting tired from sitting in meetings so much,” Ed said.

Ed’s story is sadly echoed at shelters across the country. They are reporting an influx of owners surrendering animals because they have lost their homes, another casualty of record foreclosure numbers.

But Ed’s not intending to give up the animals he’s committed himself to. Not if he can help it. He speaks fondly of one-year-old Jasmine and Princess, who are well cared for and obviously precious to him.

They started out their lives without a home, brought into his house when they were tiny by a mother cat in the neighborhood. The cat wasn’t allowed inside her family’s house. So when her babies were born, she carried all three kittens into Ed’s house one at a time, settling them into a back room. Ed was instantly taken with this street-smart mother and her helpless kittens.

‘The owners treated her like an outside cat. I treated her like an inside cat.”

The cat chose well. Because even though Ed doesn’t have a place to stay right now, home isn’t necessarily where the house is. It’s where the heart is.

And Ed has proven he has plenty of that.

Ed tethers Princess and Jasmine together when they go to the park so they can safely enjoy some fresh air without slipping away.

On the hot days this summer, Ed had a fan going for the cats, and misted them with cool water to keep them comfortable with him in the car.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

At a loss for words

One year after the storm, most neighborhoods were still lifeless. Only the grass came back. Houses were tossed about like toys, landing on different streets than the ones they belonged to.

Early last week, I promised to post Katrina coverage in chronology until I had the whole story outlined. I had intended for my stream-of-consciousness series to coincide with the four-year anniversary of the devastating storm.

It was about time I finally told this story right.

I’ve made many trips to New Orleans since the deadly flood in 2005 decimated the city. I couldn’t stay away. In fact, three out of the previous four years, I’ve been in the Big Easy at this time of year. Though "Easy" it wasn’t.

On all of the other anniversaries except the second, I was there to document the rescue and recovery mission.

But despite the volume of material I’ve gathered over the years—notes, photographs and stories from people willing to tell me how they survived it—so far, I haven’t told the story well. I’ve not been able to bring myself to sit down and write this epic from end-to-end.

Instead, I’ve been etching it out in bits and pieces.

Every time I went to write it, I’d sit there in front of my blinking computer cursor and freeze up. The tunnel of pain I had to crawl through in order to get to where I needed to go as a storyteller stopped me dead in my writer’s tracks. Even looking at photographs of the moldy houses we entered was enough to start me dry heaving as I remembered what we saw and smelled.

This year, I'd hoped it would be a healing exercise for me. I’d planned to start from the moment I stepped on a plane to rescue, and write through the mission following the progress as it continues now, so people would know what New Orleans is like today.

I put out the call to people who were there with me, and to those who are living there now. People I love and respect. We started to talk about it together. To share memories, stories, and photographs.

With four years passed, I had believed the pain wouldn’t be so fresh.

Was I wrong.

If you’ve been reading, you’ll know that I started to tell it.

Hope is born in a barn, Wednesday, September 2
Look into the light, Thursday, September 1
The silver lining after the storm, Monday, August 31

I had predicted I would be able to write six to 10 stories depending on my ability to achieve mental balance, and shut the story off when the writing was done.

Three stories in, and it’s already become too much. For me, and—I’d imagine—for some of you.

When I started writing it, I was right back there again. Reliving it in full color—the sights, the sounds, the smells. The nightmares.

Often it’s the same nightmare that plays repetitively, and I know others who have had it too. The animals are crying, and we are in the streets looking for them, crawling under rubble and searching. But we can’t find them. And when we do, we can’t catch them. They simply cry and die as we stand by helplessly.

Two years ago, this repetitive nightmare had me crawling off the opposite edge of the bed in the middle of the night. Just like when I had inched my belly along the ground under houses and mobile homes looking for animals who were lurking in the coolest hiding places they could find in the baking Louisiana heat.

I didn’t wake up until I crash-landed on the hardwood floor, breaking or cracking a couple of ribs. I’m not sure how many or how severe the damage, because I didn’t see a doctor. But I couldn’t walk for a week, and I was sore for a long while after.

Thousands of animal rescuers returned from New Orleans, but we didn’t really leave. I can’t even grasp how the locals feel. They tell me their stories and share their pain in gut-wrenching detail, but how can it be truly real to me when it wasn’t my life that was swept away?

This wasn’t our home, yet it became the place our hearts lived for a time.

And some hearts never returned. Umpteen marriages and relationships were destroyed when people who had been in the hot zone returned home changed, with altered definitions of what life meant to them.

Many refused to return home at all, preferring to erect new lives from the rubble. An animal sanctuary founder, a newly-minted animal control officer, a horse rescuer. They would all make New Orleans their new home.

Addictions took hold. Locally, and within our rescue community. The suicide rate in New Orleans tripled. Even some animal rescuers who witnessed the destruction succumbed, taking their own lives. People who had rescued beside us, who now couldn’t bear the pain of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder compounded by the tragedy that was already their troubled existence before Katrina annihilated what was left of their faith in humanity.

I noticed there was a common thread that strung all of us together. The ones who came on the scene to help, and those who called the city their home. People who stayed in New Orleans and abandoned their old lives. And the ones who deserted New Orleans to go on to new lives.

It was the guilt. That’s what claimed us all.

The feeling that we didn’t do enough to save the city, and its people, and the animals.

When in the end, we barely saved ourselves.

Trash piles were almost a relief because they signaled life was returning to the dead city.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

This little piggy is blanketed by love

I find cross-species love to be the most magnetic. Check out this Rhodesian Ridgeback who adopted a tiny orphaned piglet found freezing in the forest on a 20-acre farm in Hoerstel, Germany. Katjinga had just finished weaning a litter of her own. But when this pig came into her care, she soon started lactating again and is clearly enamored with her unlikely charge.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hope is born in a barn

Miracles happened amid destruction. These orphaned kittens were born during the storm. Here we are in the barn tending to them. The seats we're sitting on were pulled out of all of our vehicles to make more room for animals. They formed an impromptu sitting area for volunteers on a rare break.

I am accustomed to being treated like an oddball when I venture into the public domain. People’s negative reactions towards my viewpoints about animals might range from suspicion to outright ridicule.

A party, a shop, even a restaurant aren’t places where I can completely let my guard down and relax, because I never know where the hits will come from next. Even a task that appears as benign as getting a meal can turn hostile. One time, I tried to order vegetarian at a restaurant in San Antonio, Texas. The waiters were so outraged that you’d think I’d threatened to throw rotten eggs at the Alamo.

It’s happened so frequently over the past two decades that the hostility whirs like an operating system in the background of my social interactions. I’ve grown so used to it being there that I’m barely phased anymore, and don’t pay it much notice.

At least, I hadn’t noticed it. Not until it was gone. Four years ago, I rocked up to the borrowed barn operation being run by Pasado’s Safe Haven. With New Orleans without power, water, or sanitation thanks to Katrina’s merciless blow, shelters had popped up around the city’s perimeter. This makeshift shelter was 45 minutes south. It was a haven for the frightened, orphaned animals left behind.

But it was a safe spot for the people, too—like-minded volunteers who had gathered together in one place for a singular life-saving mission. People like me, who didn’t have to explain to each other why we were risking our health and safety to help the animals, and not the humans. Everybody on that 150-acre property felt just like I did.

Amidst the hell we would come to experience in the months to come, here was a tiny piece of heaven. The beauty of that unexpected effect juxtaposed against the ugliness we witnessed made the phenomenon all the more profound and awe-inspiring.

I stepped out of my minivan and immediately got to work with the other volunteers, scrubbing down carriers, walking dogs, and cleaning cat cages.

The condition of the animals was shocking. The rescuers who had infiltrated the city in the early weeks had faced greater numbers of pets roaming and locked up in houses than we saw, though there were still plenty of animals left requiring rescue. But those who came to rescue later in the mission found the animals when they were in terrible shape—emaciated, scared. Aggressive in some cases.

The appearance of the animals should have prepared us for what we would encounter when we got into the city. They were skinny, cut and bruised, and smelled like something I have never experienced before. A rank odor that I hope I don't ever smell again. Mold, toxic waste, garbage, and the dead carcasses of animals and people.

Katrina’s floodwaters rose and carried it all with her, turning the basin city into a soup of slime that coated everything when the waters finally receded. Including the animals. And us, when we waded in.

This puppy was rescued from a house with his sister. He died shortly after this photo was taken, and his black and white sister (next photo) died after I delivered her to a veterinary clinic near the airport. I named her Daisy Ray.

Daisy Ray survived a little longer than her mate before succumbing. No food and water for a month was too much for her tiny body to survive.

The animals were fed, watered, even washed when their demeanor was calm enough to allow it.

We found many black cats. This was one of the lucky ones. He almost seemed to know someone was on the way to get him. We labeled his carrier so he wouldn't get shipped out of state by mistake.

The cats were kept in stalls inside the front barn to keep them calm and away from the barking dogs.

Dogs were staged in cages in the back barn, waiting for transport out of the area.

Another photo of the back barn.

Donated supplies came rolling in. Animal lovers from around the country were following our progress on the Pasado's Safe Haven website. We even received a letter of support from Jane Goodall, the renowned primatologist! Donors sent food, leashes, brushes, toys, anything you can imagine...plus a few things that left us scratching our heads, such as several pairs of stiletto heels. In the end, they did make themselves useful by inspiring an impromptu chorus line. The ridiculous shoes made us laugh when we needed it most.

The barns were quieter during the day, because many volunteers headed into the city each morning. Others stayed behind to care for the survivors.

As night fell, curfews kicked in, and rescuers had to leave the city or risk tangling with the military. The barns turned into organized chaos as rescuers from all over the country descended there with animals they had found roaming the city or locked up in houses. Animals were logged in, triaged, and settled into kennels.

Follow me on Carreen’s Rescue Blog…

As I head into the decaying city, I’ll describe what we encountered when we arrived.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Look into the light

The scale of destruction is impossible to convey in a photo. Trees were uprooted like toothpicks. It took my breath away.

Like a bat signal beamed into the sky, the call for help shone out and spoke to each of us when Katrina’s storm surge rolled in. Independent of each other, animal rescuers flocked to a city in trouble.

But the lighted cry for help wasn’t coming from anything resembling the fictional Gotham City Police Department. Far from it. In fact, it wasn’t put out by an official agency of any type.

It was the continuously looping news footage broadcasting from flickering television sets and computer screens that drew rescuers to New Orleans, where we would sneak into a drowned city to save the pets despite myriad dangers.

The animals were residents of New Orleans too, and the government had denied their passage to safety, causing great anguish to the people who loved them. And their inexorable suffering also brought pain to humans they didn’t even know—the animal rescuers.

We responded en masse. The cries came from the animals, but also from their guardians, who telephoned our temporary shelters in the coming weeks and months begging us to break down their soggy doors to save their starving, dehydrated pets.

Locals from the rescue community worked alongside out-of-towners to do the job together, a rescue effort that was too big for locals alone. Seasoned rescuers saved alongside animal lovers who had never been in the field before. Veterinarians and vet techs, cat trappers and dog trainers, shelter staffers and animal welfare volunteers. In a rescue community known for squabbling, we put aside our differences in order to perform this history-making, life-saving mission.

The rescue would test us, and it would define life’s meaning in a way the rest of our lives never had.

I made my first trip there four weeks after the storm had passed. I had no idea what to expect. I was traveling alone. When I go into dangerous situations, I tend to feel safer by myself. At least my own behavior is predictable to me.

I carried directions to places outside the city where different groups had assembled makeshift shelters. Their locations were being kept under wraps because people had been stealing dogs from temporary shelters, which eventually ended up being under guard. But if you were connected to the rescue community, you could find out where the shelters were.

The United flight into New Orleans didn’t appear to contain residents, who still weren’t allowed to return. Instead, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, Red Cross workers, and insurance agents filled the seats.

A dirty, skinny collie was sprinting down the runway as the plane descended into Louis Armstrong Airport, swerving off the pavement to escape the roaring bird that chased him. Slipping through a hole in the fence, he was gone. The airport, one of the few gathering places left as people travelled in and out of the deserted ruins, likely lured the hungry dog because of its garbage output. It was the first glimpse of the horror I would witness in New Orleans in the days ahead.

When passengers disembarked at the terminal, the luggage carts had mysteriously disappeared. Carts had vanished, yet wheelchairs were parked crazily everywhere. Perhaps that was because this airport had served as a triage center for days, a hellhole where the sickest residents were kept alive before being transported away from the city to safety. If they survived that long.

I had watched them suffering and dying on the news, and as I waited for my luggage to roll down onto the carousel, I imagined the sights and sounds of misery that must have permeated this building a few weeks before.

I had two large duffel bags filled with survival gear including a tent, sleeping bag, carbon mask, gloves, boots, and enough snacks to last two weeks. I liberated one of the wheelchairs to haul my stuff. When I got to the rental car parking lot, it was a mess. The vehicles were dirty, nearly empty of gas, and strewn in disarray.

“Take any car you want. The keys are in them,” the clerk said wearily.

I looked at the cars for a moment before choosing one, weighing my concerns about finding gas with my need for a large vehicle to haul animals. Then I decided on a minivan. Someone would know where to find gas, I figured.

I thought the hours spent watching coverage of the floods on the television had prepared me for what I would encounter. I was wrong. Dead wrong. The scale of destruction eclipsed my imagination’s outermost boundaries, leaving its residue of despair in my mind long after I came home.

Most of us—though not all—would return home from New Orleans eventually. As for Katrina, she stayed with us.

The force of the storm uprooted this tree effortlessly, taking the sidewalk's paving stones with it.

Coming up next on Carreen’s Rescue Blog…

Find out what I encountered when I arrived at the triage shelter set up by Washington state-based animal welfare group Pasado’s Safe Haven. A kind attorney and his wife living near New Orleans in Raceland had reached out over the Internet to offer Pasado's the use of their 150-acre farm.

The carriers stand outside the barn, washed and ready for their next trip into the city.