Monday, 19 August 2013

M I N E!


                                     
Over the centuries, man has been referred to as a dog’s “master” and “owner” while the dog has been described as man’s “constant companion” and even his “best friend”. Lately, the idea of ownership has evolved radically. Advocates of animal rights and welfare say their dogs own them and choose them. Just who owns who would indeed make a hot topic for discussion.




In the 2010 film documentary titled “Mine”, the subject is explored once again in the wake of events that arose right after Hurricane Katrina. Writer / Director  Geralyn Pezanoski quite successfully captured the angst and depression that plagued those who thought they had lost their dogs forever, the anger of those who discovered that their dogs had been adopted by families and couldn’t get them back and those who had adopted the dogs and didn’t want to give them up, and finally the elation of those who were reunited with their beloved furry companions.

The viewer experiences a mix of sympathy and frustration over what may be seen as the stupidity of men as the fight over ownership of the Katrina dogs turned ugly and political. We see shades of racial bias and social inequity as hurricane victims and adoptive families battled  over legal custody of the rescued dogs.

NO CHOICE

Hurricane Katrina hit the state of Louisiana on the morning of Monday, August 29, 2005 with winds lashing at 280 kms per hour. About 80% of New Orleans was destroyed and the floodwaters stayed for several weeks.

Other areas devastated by the hurricane included Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, Cuba and the Bahamas.  It is considered one of the five deadliest natural catastrophes to hit the United States, killing 1800 people and destroying the homes of millions more. More than 700 people are still missing and damages have been estimated at more than 100 billion dollars.

Although mandatory evacuation of the residents began 2-3 days before the hurricane made landfall, government response to the catastrophe has been criticized as being ill-prepared and slow. Animals were not allowed into the shelters so some residents who refused to leave their animals behind died during the storm.  

Residents like Gloria, a senior citizen living on her own, repeatedly promised her dog Murphy Brown that she would not abandon him. But when the National Guardsmen came to take her, they gave her two choices: to go with them willingly or to be taken forcibly to a shelter. Neither option included Murphy Brown. So Gloria was forcibly taken from her home and her dog. She was placed in an evacuation shelter in St. Louis, Missouri for several weeks.

All throughout her stay in the shelter, she never gave up hope of finding Murphy Brown. People soon learned about her story and volunteers launched a campaign to find the dog. He had been adopted by a couple in California and renamed “Shadow”.  The couple willingly returned Murphy Brown to Gloria and arranged for “visiting rights”. Gloria and the couple, Ron and Ellen, soon became good friends. When she died in March 2008, Gloria stated in her will that Murphy Brown should go back to them.

Other residents had to take care of family members first. Although they wanted to bring their animals with them, the shelters were strict about their no-animals policy.

Days after the storm, volunteers from welfare organizations like Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) arrived to rescue the animals left at home. Many animals were able to make their way to the rooftops. But I remember a scene where rescuers had to drill a hole on a roof so they could get to a huge black dog barking below. The dogs, intelligent beings that they are, knew these people were there to save them so they willingly squeezed through windows and holes to get to the rescuers.

But it was more difficult to find the cats because as one woman put it, “Dogs bark. Cats don’t.”

“HE’S MINE”

In the end, more than 500 shelters in Canada and the United States took in some 15,000 animals from the battered Gulf States.  The plan was to save the animals  first then find their owners next. But while rescue efforts proved successful for many four-legged creatures, reuniting them with their human families proved to be a mess. In the melee that followed, records got lost and the animals, the dogs especially, were considered “orphans” and adopted out to families across the country.

 Then Hurricane Rita hit Louisiana on September 23, three weeks after  Katrina.        

 Damages from this second hurricane were estimated at some 11 billion dollars although only about 120 people were killed.  Rita further  nixed whatever chances there were of reuniting dogs with their families in Louisiana.

In New Orleans alone, rescuers estimate that about 150,000 animals died in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“It’s like a wave of depression comes over you because you made a mistake... of leaving your companion behind,” says Victor Marino who was forced to leave his white pit bull Max behind.

Victor recalled how Max would circle the dining table to get scraps during meals. But as Victor circled his house, he was gladly surprised to see paw prints on the ground which indicated that Max was able to jump from the second floor to the ground probably after the water had subsided.

In a desperate attempt to find his dog, Victor scanned the petfinder database online for five months. Several calls confirmed that his dog Max was already living with a family who loved him very much in Florida. His new name was Joey.

Victor never gave up and kept calling Max’s new family. At first, the adoptive family was adamant and refused to give him back.  They felt that Victor had abandoned Max and so did not deserve him. Both parties called the dog “Mine”. But after numerous calls, the family in Florida finally gave in. Joey became Max again and went back home to Louisiana.

Before Katrina, Malvin, an African-American senior citizen, lived alone with his white poodle, Bandit. Their lives revolved around each other so Malvin was devastated to find Bandit gone when he got home. But volunteers took up his cause and Malvin built a new wooden dog house in anticipation of Bandit’s return.

Meanwhile, Bandit, now renamed Lucky Louie, had been adopted by a family that was crazy about him. With the intervention of volunteer trackers, Lucky Louie’s new family decided to give him back  to Malvin after a year.

Jessie James Pullins, on the other hand, had to evacuate 20 family members and couldn’t take his dog JJ with them to the shelter. “I often think of that moment... how JJ must have been there and I wasn’t there,” he says ruefully as guilt and sadness set in.

Jessie James was able to locate the shelter that took JJ in but shelter officials refused to disclose the whereabouts of his new family. An official kept on saying that Jessie couldn’t blame her for the mess because she did what she thought was best for the dog. Jessie hired a pro bono lawyer to help him get JJ back. After more than a year, JJ’s new family agreed to give him back then suddenly cut off all communication and disappeared with the dog.

The last case featured in the film documentary was that of Linda and the family’s German shepherd, Precious. Linda said she wasn’t able to take Precious because she had to prioritize her family and her mother in a wheel chair. Rescuers were able to save Precious and successfully re-home her in another state. Her new name was Katia.

Katia seemed happy in Texas with her new family who doted on her. Of course, they refused to give her up and even hired a lawyer for the lawsuit filed by Linda. Volunteers had also raised funds for Linda’s lawyer but the case stalled when the funds ran out. The case was eventually dismissed in Louisiana.

The adoptive family claimed that Katia’s previous owners did not take good care of her because she had heartworms and signs of having been caged when they acquired her. The lawyer also stressed that if Linda and her family had really considered the dog as one of them, they would not have left her behind.

LESSONS LEARNED

After the hurricanes, the US Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) that mandated states to include pets in their disaster evacuation plans. That’s a landmark law, one that
I hope will also be done in the Philippines.  After all, the bond between animal and humans could be as strong and long-lasting as the bond between humans.

Animal organizations, particularly in the United States, have a pretty good track record of rescues in times of natural disasters. But they must improve their tracking system so there can be a more systematic and efficient way to trace and reunite humans and their animal companions.

I really hope we will never experience a tragedy like Katrina. But if it’s fated, then only early preparations can mitigate the damage that nature could create in all fury. Official  disaster evacuation plans should include the animals. But we must have our own plans for our human families and animal companions, too.

Lastly, like the animal rescue teams, many Americans were quick to judge and blame the Louisiana residents for the fate of the animals left behind.  People presumed that the residents did not care much for the animals. But many of them did. Sweeping generalizations are almost never good. With their homes destroyed and their friends and family either killed or missing, some survivors fought to get their dogs back because they were the only living link to a past obliterated by the floodwaters of Katrina.   

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Published in Animal Scene Magazine in May 2010

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