Angel in Training

by Toni Drugmand
Katrina photos courtesy of Deb Cleverley

“He was initially deemed vicious and un-adoptable.”

"Dogs are really angels in training."

"Dogs are really angels in training."

“Dogs are really angels in training,” a former United States Army Special Forces guy says. He dropped everything to drive more than 1,000 miles to pick up Hurricane from Santa Fe, New Mexico and get him to Phoenix on New Year’s Eve. A tan medium-sized package of pure muscle, named Miles that at the time, is a Katrina survivor rescued with with thousands of other pets. When the Lamar Dixon Equestrian Center, outside of New Orleans, offered its facility as a holding site, they never expected to turn into a landing zone for helicopters and military vehicles. Thousands of animals needed refuge. After only a week the facility was filled to capacity. As many as 5,000 rescued animals were taken to the facility. There was no more room at the inn yet rescues continued to mount.

Hurricane was one of the eighteen Katrina rescues that the Santa Fe Humane society had taken in. A member of a group called Stealth Volunteers, June Towler, who participated in animal relief and rescue in New Orleans, stated that eight or nine of the eighteen dogs that went to Santa Fe were labeled vicious and un-adoptable. This is very disappointing for the teams of rescuers that spent morning till night in horrible decaying conditions trying to rescue and save as many of the animals as they could. Towler thinks many of these dogs labeled vicious may be getting a bad rap simply by responding to the fear and stress of the disaster. She, along with several members of her group, fought very hard to get the dogs out of the shelter where the confined conditions and lack of exercise would only increase their stress and trauma.

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Hurricane had been kept in holding at the facility in hopes that his original owners might be found. Eventually the rescue organization believed that it was no longer in Hurricane’s the best interest to remain in a rescue environment. June Towler put out a plea for help. According to a behaviorist, Hurricane was considered to be incredibly people friendly, but very intense when he saw other dogs. Could he be safe in a normal public situation?

This question is always critical when you are involved with any dog rescue, but the problem is compounded when confronted with such a large-scale rescue as brought on by Katrina. Resources are limited and the lives of dogs are in the balance. Hurricane was on the list to be to be euthanized and if another resource wasn’t available for safe placement, his days were numbered.

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Once New Orleans had been evacuated, the pets that were left behind were doomed. No one was allowed back into the city for safety reasons and the Humane Society was asked by FEMA to provide rescue efforts for the animals. Many other organizations also volunteered.

Deb Cleverley, a client of DOG-ON-IT Training and a personal friend, was working as the mobile unit coordinator for the Arizona Humane Society. Cleverley was a member of the first Emergency Animal Medical Technician (EAMTs) team that Arizona sent to New Orleans. The Arizona Humane Society sent teams every 5-7 days for four weeks to join FEMA in the rescue effort. Deb’s specially trained team arrived a week after Katrina hit. She spent eight days in New Orleans and recounted some of the rescue efforts to me. We looked at photos of water as high as rooftops and dogs that had been chained out on balconies. There are no words to adequately describe it. The devastation and the horrific conditions shown in the photos were unimaginable.

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Deb shared with me that when the water had receded enough so that the mud and muck was only calf high, wearing high rubber boots, the animal rescue teams set off in pairs trying to locate any critters that had been left behind. The city itself was described as being eerily unnatural. There were no living sounds, the water was contaminated and stagnant, and the heat combined with the high humidity was oppressive. The team walked through the neighborhoods calling and whistling. When they heard barking, chirping and the occasional meow, they went to the home, banged on the door and when necessary, broke into the houses. It was sometimes very difficult to gain entry because many of the doors and windows were barred in the high crime sections of the city. If they heard a pet inside, they persevered until they could get inside. Pets were found floating on mattresses, others were rescued from rooftops and balconies.

Most of the animals were traumatized and fearful. The only sounds in the aftermath of the storm had been of helicopters and machinery. The sudden sounds of forced entry and breaking glass caused understandable fear in the pets trapped in the ruins. Many were aggressive, not trusting the rescue help. The mold left behind by the receding waters created a smell described as something you would not wish to remember but would be impossible to forget.

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The rescued dogs had not eaten or drank except for the contaminated floodwaters for days. It was a major task to keep the animals from drinking the poisoned water in the streets when they were removed from their watery prisons. Skin lesions and diarrhea were common. Deb explained that later rescue teams saw worse conditions with the dogs, which had been suffering for longer periods of time. The weeks of dehydration and continual exposure to the contaminated water caused the skin on some dogs to begin de-gloving; sloughing off leaving raw exposed tissues and muscle exposed. The later teams also found a much higher percentage of death among the animals. Still these incredible rescue efforts resulted in over 8,000 companion animals lives saved. Some of these pets, because of the incredible amount of work from organizations like Stealth Volunteers, were reunited with their owners. Others remained in rescue facilities across the country waiting for decisions to be made on their fate.

I became involved when the plea for help came from June Towler. June’s plea came onto a private list consisting of the “No Limitations” trainer’s directory. This is a group of certified professional dog trainers specializing in remote collar training, www.nolimitations.biz. When Towler made her post to the list for help she explained that she had experienced dramatic results with her own problem pit bull and felt that a trainer knowledgeable with this expertise might be able to help save a dog otherwise condemned to death.

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I remembered the photos my friend Deb had shown me. Her anxiety and frustration at not being able to do more appeared to parallel the desires expressed by June in her appeal for someone to help these dogs in need. Feelings of inadequacy at not being able to help save more of the innocent and helpless victims of nature’s wrath were overwhelming. I was just over 500 miles and one state away from some of the dogs needing placements before they were euthanized so I answered that ad. “I may have room,” I said and left it at that. Because all the proper channels need to be met within most organizations, I didn’t hear anything much at first. I assumed that the dog(s) no longer needed foster homes and the business of the holidays were upon us. I did however make a pre-notification to a good friend who has helped out before. He called it a “warning order.”

My Special Forces buddy has a ranch about half-way between Phoenix and Santa Fe. He has rescued numerous dogs, cats and horses and has a special affinity for the Bully Breeds. When I was notified that the dog was ready to come to me and that we needed to move him quickly. Mid-afternoon on December 30, my buddy climbed into his pickup and headed for Santa Fe. After driving nearly 300 miles that day, he spent the night in Santa Fe and the next morning headed for the Humane Society facility outside of Santa Fe to meet with the dog called Miles, the little pit bull in need of help. It was a success at first sight. The little dog is 38 pounds of solid muscle, blond, about 18 months old, and happy as could be. The Society personnel provided paperwork, a leash, collar, a crate with a blanket and some food.

It was cold with a chilly westerly wind blowing in Santa Fe. My Green Beret friend decided that Miles, now called Hurricane, did not have enough coat to keep him warm in the camper shell, so, just like his own dogs, he put this “vicious and un-adoptable” pit bull on the rear seat and started the 500 mile run to Phoenix on New Year’s Eve Day.

Hurricane was described as one of the most alert dogs he has ever been around. The dog’s eyes would open if he so much as moved his head, and the little guy would just watch him for long periods of time occasionally standing up and poking his wet nose into his ear as he drove. When he would leave the pickup for fuel or food, Hurricane would come up and sit in the driver’s seat watching for him. My friend said that if he did not already have five dogs and if the little guy had more coat to deal with the sub-zero winter weather at nearly 8,000 feet altitude, he would sure take him. They were close friends by the time they reached Phoenix. Of course, getting to eat hamburgers on the trip didn’t hurt! Two very tired guys, a decorated, combat veteran and a little pit bull arrived in Phoenix on New Year’s Eve and that is how Hurricane came to DOG-ON-IT in Arizona.

Nearly four months since his departure from New Orleans, on New Years Eve, Hurricane, one of the fortunate rescues from Katrina came to us for training and evaluation in hopes of finding placement in a permanent, loving home. He entered my home like a hurricane, a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm, happy to be part of this new world! My dear friend, the good doggy Samaritan driver, stated that he didn’t answer to Miles anyways and the name Hurricane seemed to fit, hence the change. Although he is strong and incredibly powerful he is full of joy, life and a desire to want to work with you. This little power-packed dog immediately won us over. It has been a pleasure to work with him, he learns quickly. DOG-ON-IT staff have even volunteered to work with him on days off. Hurricane seems to have endeared himself to everyone he has met.

As my friend was leaving for his home in New Mexico and saying his goodbyes to Hurricane, I heard him tell the dog “remember son, when God cannot send an angel to help a person, he sends a dog. You are an angel in training.”

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