Hurricane politics: Part II - Observations from the Lamar Dixon Expo Center, Gonzales,…

Hurricane politics: Part II - Observations from the Lamar Dixon Expo Center, Gonzales, Louisiana

By: Staff  Date: 11/7/2005 Category: | Rescue |

I began my “hands-on” journey into the wake of Katrina for one specific purpose - the rescue and fostering of Doberman Pinschers.  My breed happens to be one which faces increasing legislation calling for its ban in communities across this nation.  This breed is misperceived by the public and abused by criminals. Given the difficulties I personally experienced in trying to get these animals out of a shelter environment, along with the human politics and egos which enveloped the animal rescue efforts, my experience with animal rescue in the wake of Katrina left me with the strong belief that these efforts should be conducted or overseen by federal government organizations who are not engaged in promoting animal “rights” politics and fundraising agendas. In this article, I explore some of my experiences and observations at the Lamar Dixon shelter operation in Gonzales, Louisiana. It is necessary to address the corrective measures needed and facilitate a coordinated effort to provide better animal care in times of disaster by all interested parties. I am the first to acknowledge that in times of disaster, that there are going to be problems. That is why debriefing, review of past actions, and fair-minded critique is necessary to foster a learning experience.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has conducted shelter operations in most, if not all hurricane disasters, since and including Hurricane Andrew in 1992. However, based on what I personally observed at the Lamar Dixon shelter operation, it is my opinion that on-the-job training for shelter and rescue operations is inefficient, wasteful and dangerous - especially for those being rescued. After only two days at this facility I was stuck with the obvious: HSUS does not operate a single ongoing, year round animal shelter anywhere in the country.

  Despite the reported presence of 200+ volunteers on any given day, HSUS appeared to lack knowledge about basic animal care and welfare and/or failed to implement it. When disasters strike, we need qualified people with administrative, technical and hands-on expertise for effective animal care. ALL participants need to be prepared and ready to execute a mitigation plan as soon as it is safe. The "all volunteer" army needs to know the planned protocol and set to task in executing their assigned duties. The haphazard approach to animal care which I witnessed at this facility resulted in much volunteer exasperation, anger and the common sentiment that "the rules change daily".


I entered the shelter premises simply by providing my name, donning a nametag, and signifying that I was with Doberman Rescue on September 9, 2005. This shelter had been open and operating for some time prior to my initial visit. HSUS shirts were worn by many and HSUS media was everywhere. At that time, it was very apparent to me that animal care was not organized and occurred in a haphazard fashion. Food items were stored by crate cleaning areas; feeding and exercise schedules were not specified; and supplies were laying everywhere without rhyme or reason as to their placement. Public safety and animal handling protocol for the volunteers was non-existent. Most of the animal crates I saw contained urine and feces. The intake process for animals seemed merely to involve only the generation of paperwork. Additionally, the heat was unbearable to man and beast, yet I only recall a few fans that were placed in the stall walkways.

At that time, Veterinary Medical Assistance Team (VMAT) personnel were administering care to the animals on a stall to stall basis in the barns. No triage center was yet established for sick and injured animals. We were also made aware that the animals were not immediately and routinely scanned for microchips upon their arrival due to the fact that my rescue companion carried her rescue scanner onto these premises. In fact, microchip scanning wasn't’t made a part of the intake protocol or routinely performed on any of the animals coming into this facility during the entire 3 weeks that I was there. Besides the scanner carried by my companion, I never saw a scanner utilized on these premises. (A scanner reportedly costs about $300.00). Effective security and fencing for the animal housing area was non-existent and large numbers of animals were stolen on the night of my first visit. Tents and motor homes were scattered along the rear of the facility, while other trailers and vehicles seemed to be everywhere.

I am still confounded by much of what I saw, yet encouraged by the actions and initiatives of one group of animal responders, the United States Public Health Service (USPHS). It is my belief that USPHS veterinarians turned that place around. On the third day of my visits to Lamar Dixon, I became aware of the presence of the USPHS team of vets, who, I am advised, deployed at the request of Louisiana State officials. While it was no surprise to see nearly every other animal group in the country, as well as the VMAT team deployed through FEMA, the arrival of the men and women in the black shirts, camouflage pants and boots came as quite a surprise. It is, without question, to the USPHS members, their efforts and their coordination with the VMAT teams that we owe much thanks and appreciation.

Upon their arrival, USPHS modified the intake of animals. Animals entering this shelter received paperwork, neck tag identification and photo ID; they were USPHS vet assessed and if deemed generally healthy they received a bath, a clean kennel, food and water. VMAT personnel were then assigned 24 hour triage duty and worked in 8 hour shifts. Overly stressed or aggressive animals were handled by experienced volunteers and behaviorists.

USPHS personnel were also charged with animal export duties. The animals received vet exams, vaccinations, worming, microchips and flea treatment prior to being shipped out to other locales and shelters. Cooling fans suddenly appeared everywhere. Supplies were opened and organized. Specific food storage areas, bathing areas and crate cleaning areas appeared. Organization became apparent and the animals received improved care and attention. Thereafter, import and export vehicles began to arrive in a more scheduled and regular fashion. Fencing and security programs were implemented. After Hurricane Rita, USPHS integrated export procedures as part of the intake protocol - Paperwork, digital photographs, vet exams, microchipping, worming, vaccination and flea treatment all occurred at intake. Animals also only arrived and left in air conditioned vehicles during the cooler hours of the day. A chain of command structure was established, with volunteer, barn and safety protocols. The end result was that the animals received significantly better care and attention.

It is my sincere belief that these procedures could have and should have been established and in place at the time this shelter opened its doors. I watched the chaos-taming progress of the USPHS vets in the black shirts daily and was enveloped with much respect and immense gratitude for their efforts. Their works directly benefited the animals in the direst of need; not the media or animal rights groups jockeying for exposure and fundraising opportunity.

I am one of the first in line to express my gratitude to the multitudes of willing volunteers who presented themselves and have much to say about the volunteers at Lamar Dixon. Without them, this effort would have been futile. They showed me the "heart" of America. They showed up from every fathomable part of this country to assist with the rescue and the care of the animals and nothing would have occurred without these kind and caring individuals. Some came alone; some came with others; some were affiliated with animal groups; some weren’t; some had agendas; others didn't’t; some agendas were made apparent; others weren’t. These volunteers heard or saw the animal situation on the news, got in their cars and drove down. They gave up vacation time or took time off. They paid their own way. They suffered the heat and they worked far after exhaustion set in. They were vocal in volunteer meetings about better animal care and they demanded assurance that animals were being exported only to no-kill facilities. I've heard many Presidents mention how very big the "heart" of this nation is, especially in times of disaster. I saw it firsthand and it is something that I will carry with me to my grave. It is to this "all volunteer" army of animal rescuers that we owe the most.

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All Authors Of This Article: | Terri Cannon |
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