By Gary Michael Smith
"Stray 'Pets' Running Rampant" would have been the headline.
When Brenda and I returned to New Orleans three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, we were
shocked -- and occasionally frightened --at the number of cats and dogs running wild in the
streets. They didn't look so much dangerous as lonely and hungry. Then we noticed something
even more disturbing: Many of the animals had collars!
It didn't take us long to realize that these were animals whose owners left a couple days'
food and water when they evacuated. We all thought we'd be back in that time, and since many
were staying with friends or in hotels, it posed potential problems finding accommodations if
you had pets in tow. Imagine the shock and horror everyone felt when the levees broke, then
getting the news that a couple days away from home was going to turn into nearly a month.
So once back home, Brenda and I started feeding the numerous cats that took up residence in
our fenced backyard. Indeed, once we put out a few bowls of food and water, we had quite a
collection of felines -- some with collars, some obviously tame, and some either feral or one-
owner cats that would share our sanctuary but wouldn't let us close to them.
Every day or so vans would cruise the neighborhood -- vans with signs displaying "HSUS"
for the Humane Society of the United States. They would ask us if we knew of any animals
needing attention, and we always did. I had been feeding a couple cats in an alley near my house,
plus there were always dogs running around with the lost and confused look on their faces,
wondering where their owners were.
The HSUS staff made no value judgments regarding why owners hadn't returned to claim
their pets, and to this day many owners still haven't returned some four months later. No, the
animal rescue staff simply gave us stainless steel bowls, bags of cat food, and jugs of pure water,
and asked that we spray paint on doors and walls codes like "F/W 2 Cats" to indicate to future
HSUS staff to stop on their rounds to "feed and water two cats" at a particular location.
Animal stories abound. In one instance, a neighbor told us that they'd been feeding and
watering a beautiful gray cat. While it wouldn't let them touch it, it did seem tame. When they
described it I remembered that another neighbor a couple blocks away was missing their cat --
John Gray as he was named. I told the owners and they visited the other neighbor to see the
"stray." Sure enough, it was Mr. Gray, albeit skinny with much hair loss.
They took him to a veterinarian and were told that he actually was healthy -- malnourished
and traumatized -- but disease- and worm-free. The vet explained that the hair loss was caused by
over-grooming brought on by stress. I can't image how stressful it must be for a former indoor
animal to suddenly have to make it on his or her own in the streets for weeks and months.
Then there's the story of Pinch. His owner couldn't take him and left a bunch of food before
she fled to Upstate New York. Our network of neighbors were emailing everyone and giving
permission to anyone who returned -- as well as to rescue organizations -- to break into their
homes to rescue their pets. By the time Pinch's owner was able to return home, she found a
broken window and no Pinch. He didn't return for weeks and was skinny with an open wound.
Like many other situations, the vet said that Pinch was healthy and just needed medication for
his wound and steady nutrition to get his fur back.
Fortunately, many of our friends and neighbors still are adopting animals off the street. The
local SPCA is overwhelmed and has no more available space, so we've decided as a pet-loving
citizenry to do our part and pick one or two animals to care for. Maybe their owners will come
back some day; maybe they won't. But we'll continue to feed them and take them in for shots
and flea treatments, and look out for their general health.
So now, Brenda and I feed Malcolm and Elton and Graylee and Pinch and Moostach and
even Jenny when she comes to visit outside in addition to our own Chatgris and Hambone inside.
Jenny spends much of her time with another neighbor with fewer cats in their yard and Mr. Gray
is back home with his family. Every now and then a new one will appear, and we'll feed him or
her. And we'll continue this until New Orleans rebuilds itself enough for the rest of the human
parents to return.
[A sad footnote... shortly before this was published, Malcolm was found dead, and no one knows why
he died, as they could find no sign of any obvious injury, etc.
Poor little kitty. This article is put online in memory of Malcolm.]
Gary Michael Smith is a writer and cat lover in New Orleans. He can
be reached at
www.ChatgrisPress.com, a website that
is French for "gray cat."