I’ve been sitting on this blog entry for so long, it’s no longer timely, but I’m posting it anyway. For while the Joplin tornado, Fukushima nuclear meltdown, and Hurricane Katrina may not command today’s headlines as they did weeks or months or years ago, they’re still relevant to those who are dealing with the consequences. Every mass exodus from disaster-torn areas allows us to re-evaluate animal rescue and disaster relief policies anew, hopefully with an eye on improvement and the minimization of suffering due to faulty infrastructure. This is an arduous, continuous, emotional process that is contingent on numerous cultural and political factors, so I think it’s always worth sorting through the details to get a sense of what worked, what went awry, and how actions (or inactions) are perceived in historical hindsight.
I was living in Taiwan in August 2005, when Katrina struck. From the vantage point of a small Asian Pacific island that is frequently beset by earthquakes and typhoons, it was hard for me to grasp the full scope of what happened to the US. It was particularly difficult to understand the social and economic fallout in the aftermath; to this day, I feel like I missed the full arc of the story.
So Hurricane Katrina animal rescue becomes an entry point from which I feel I can worm my way in. Two documentaries about Katrina Animal Rescue that I recently saw:
Film: Dark Water Rising: Survival Stories of Hurricane Katrina Rescues aka The Truth About Hurricane Katrina Rescues
Director: Mike Shiley
Featured cast: Aaron Minjares, Larry Roberts, Kim Upham
Production Information: Shidog Films, 2006 (USA)
Breed(s) featured: pit bulls, various mixes
Over 50,000 dogs and cats were left behind in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as FEMA required that all animals be left behind in the mandatory evacuation.
This forced separation created America’s first-ever major animal rescue.
A dedicated and compassionate group of volunteer rescuers and animal welfare groups from around the world risked their lives to sledgehammer down doors and brave toxic floodwaters in a truly heroic effort to save nearly 10,000 animals.
Dark Water Rising is a film about hope and survival in the face of the one of the worst natural disasters in American history.(press release)
Director: Geralyn Pezanoski
Featured cast: Victor, Gloria Richardson, Jessie Pullins, Malvin Cavalier, etc.
Production Information: Smush Media, 2009 (USA)
Breed(s) featured: Terrier mix, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, pit bull-Akita mix, miniature poodle mix, various mixes
As Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, the mayor issued a last-minute order for everyone to evacuate. In the clamor to get out of the city, many pet owners left their animals with food and water, fully intending to return in a few days. People without the means to leave the city on their own were forced onto buses and barred from bringing the furriest family members along.
The result was that tens of thousands of domesticated pets were left in a devastated city. Those that survived the storm and the floods faced grim odds of surviving the heat without fresh water or enough food to last the weeks or months before their owners were permitted back into the city to rescue them. Mine follows some of the hundreds of volunteers who mobilized in the hours and days after the storm, entering the city and capturing as many stranded pets as they could find. These volunteers often provided life-saving medical care to the injured, dehydrated, and hungry animals. Massive temporary animal shelters sprung up in the suburbs of New Orleans, where the lucky pets who survived waited to be reunited with their owners or adopted out.
It would not be easy or quick, or without ethical quandaries and lawsuits. Mine tracks the stories of several of the rescued pets, their original owners, and their adopted families, raising questions about what constitutes pet “ownership” and how we regard animals as both family members and property. (from PBS.org)
Dark Water Rising begins with a promise to tell “The Truth about Hurricane Katrina rescues,” as if there was an absolute moral standard by which to judge the chaos. With quick and dirty exposé-style narration, the film presents a polarized rescue scene — bureaucrats vs. renegades, corporate vs. private, vigilante justice.
Shiley did take some risks with this film’s content. He gives an unflinching presentation of the gruesome abuses of power that probably continue to haunt some of the same Southern jurisdictions to this day. A sequence towards the end details the St. Bernard Parish slaughters, in which several dozen family pets entrusted to the care of local police were found brutally shot — a case which has not yet been brought to a satisfactory conclusion.
Shiley also adopts a bold stance in framing the “anarchic” Winn Dixie group, as they were called in the film, as the central, pivotal characters, instead of taking the press kit-ready maneuvers of HSUS-uniformed crewmen at face value. However, it seems that the filmmakers’ sympathies for fringe groups bled into production values, as the overall narration suffered from too many diversions in an attempt to explain the desolation and desperation that plagued the ongoing rescue efforts.
Then again, perhaps this is truly what the view was like from the ground, heavily skewed to the nightmares of rescuers too trapped in the frenzy for their own good. Released barely a year after Katrina, no doubt that the first documentary emerged from a very different emotional state than Mine, which came several years later. But in Dark Water Rising, the frustration, righteousness, and the desire to make the audience witness the violence suffered by Katrina animals does more to alienate and disturb than convince me to embrace the group’s heroics. The film itself is deeply conflicted, which makes empathy difficult; it beckons with the promise of enlightenment by offering its audience a glimpse of the “truth”, at the same time the actors keep the audience at arm’s length (and I use the term actors very purposefully to acknowledge their acknowledgment of the camera), shaking their heads with the gloomy declaration that you never will and maybe don’t even deserve to “get it” because you. weren’t. there.
In contrast, Mine has well-plotted, interlinking story arcs, likeable and articulate characters, and emotionally cathartic conclusions (even when there was no real resolution). Pezanoski and crew selected their cast carefully to reflect some semblance of racial, gender, age, and even breed balance. For while animal rescuers interviewed in both documentaries express some honest shock at the sheer proportion of unneutered pit bulls amongst those that needed to be saved, the visuals nevertheless portray a very mixed population of dogs and people alike.
What is most significant — and sorely lacking from the first documentary — is that they gave voice to the citizens who were most directly affected by Katrina, and whose pets were rescued. Then they probed carefully to give them depth, personality, and most importantly, dignity.
“See, nobody ever thought I would come for [my dog JJ], first of all. And then if I did come for him, nobody thought I would be able to provide for JJ. See, I don’t think people know who I am — that’s one of the problems.” (Jessie Pullins, whose akita-pitbull mix was named Jessie Jr. like a son)
These were not the willfully negligent guardians that some rescue groups presumed large swathes of NOLA pet owners to be. These were elderly folks that needed help evacuating in the first place, and only left their dogs when forced at gunpoint. These were heads of households who had to evacuate their entire multi-generational families on short notice. These were ordinary citizens with limited resources and no authority to re-enter their own city until months later, while anyone who donned a shirt declaring themselves an animal rescuer could be waved through the blockades.
Much of what happened there remains senseless and incomprehensible to me, as it must surely remain for those who have since learned to pave over their tragedies. But one thing that did resonate with me is how animal rescue can serve to radically collapse space and distance.
Volunteers swooped in from all corners of the country to offer help where it was needed. And as the nearby shelters quickly filled to capacity, the dogs had no choice but to get shipped even further out. Rescuer Jane Garrison explained the situation and ethical quandary in blunt terms:
“If you lost your dog today, and your dog ended up in the shelter, after five days, your dog can either be adopted out, or euthanized. No questions asked. But in Katrina, most of the people who lost animals were displaced. They needed to give them longer to get them. So they kept extending it — from the five days, to several weeks, to then again, a few months. If we set a precedent by saying that animals from Katrina can be reunited with their original families up to 3 years after the storm, no animal shelter will ever take animals in. You or I would never adopt an animal from a shelter if we were told the original family may claim this animal up to 3 years later. So what would happen is we would be stuck with a situation where a disaster hits, we’re rescuing animals as quickly as we can, but we need to move them out in order to make room for others? Nobody would open their doors. So thousands and thousands of animals will die again, because there won’t be any place to put them.”
People come in, dogs go out. And because the dogs went out, people stepped back in to help reunite pets with their previous families. Many of the stories are so touching because you see communities and individuals rally around the plight of just one pet who happened to mean everything to his former owner. The unlikely partnering that most impressed me was the Canadian, Sandra Bauer, who helped elderly Malvin locate his dog in Pennsylvania. There was some resistance on the part of Bandit’s new owners, and we never actually hear their side of the story. But when we finally witness Bandit and Malvin’s reunion, it was a confirmation that, at least for a moment, something overwhelmingly good had just happened before your very eyes.
Now, what business has a Canadian meddling in the affairs of several states in a country she doesn’t even call her own? Well, state lines and other geopolitical limitations do little to obstruct activism in the name of compassion. Sandra was moved by Malvin’s plight as a pet lover, which is inextricable from her identity as a decent human being. As simple as it may seem, this realization was profound to me — particularly in light of recent events by notable bloggers in animal advocacy, as a for instance. Even if the details of each specific rescue are only amazing because they are “exceptional,” you string enough exceptional stories together and you can build a pretty awesome story about how many lives were forever changed by the love of one animal. And when such a film has the power to touch a viewer in whatever corner of the world she may be viewing from, that’s also when you realize that the true magnitude of these stories is global.
When viewed back-to-back, it was easy for me to come to a clear opinion as to which was the superior documentary. But after writing all this, I realize it’s not entirely a fair comparison to make. 2006 did not anticipate the new information and legal changes that would come to light in 2009, nor does there seem to be much reference to these documentaries in 2011, at least not in blog form.
At any rate, I make no claims to timeliness, so I get to blog about whatever I want. And what I wanted was for some way to have the positive experiences of previous disasters lend guidance to the challenges of current and future disaster relief, even if it’s just in the way we think about our pets in extreme situations. Just as sure as I don’t expect the earth to stop shaking and the skies to stop storming, these won’t be the last two pet rescue documentaries I’ll have the opportunity to see in my lifetime. But if each iteration can be a little less agonizing, less graphic, less tragic than its predecessors, the loss of loss itself would surely make for noble progress.