Hurricane Katrina, One Year Later: UT Vet Students Helped Four-legged Refugees

KNOXVILLE –- The little white dog had matted hair and no zip.

Like so many animals — and humans — who endured Hurricane Katrina, he was sad and lonely, the zest for life ripped out of him by the storm.

Abandoned or lost, the little white dog had been left to fend for himself in the New Orleans area until Humane Society volunteers picked him up and took him to an animal shelter at Dixon Correctional Institute, a medium-security prison outside Jackson, La.

It was there that University of Tennessee Veterinary Medicine students Lindsey Petty, Catrina Herd and Jessica Westling encountered the pitiful pup. The students, now all in their fourth year of studies, had traveled to Louisiana shortly after Hurricane Katrina to lend a hand.

“Dogs, geese, chickens, and ducks had been gathered from New Orleans and the surrounding area and were housed in a huge barn with separate areas for the scared, sick, and healthy animals,” Petty said. Some of the animals had been abandoned by owners trying to save their own lives; others had been left behind by their owners who apparently hoped to reclaim them after the storm.

“More than half of the dogs were big-muscled, sweet-hearted pit bulls who had been left behind in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,” she said.

The students’ first job was to teach the prison inmates how to walk, feed and clean up after the dogs.

“And after a couple of days it was clear that the inmates had bonded with the dogs,” she said. “During the few breaks that we had, it wasn’t uncommon to see the inmates out in the barnyard throwing toys for the dogs or using the hose to cool them off.”

The students also had to tend to the animals’ medical problems.

“Critical injuries had already been addressed, but there were many scratches and wounds that needed attention.”

Despite the heat and hard work, Herd said the experience was heart-warming.

She remembers one particularly touching moment when a family came to the prison after traveling for six hours and found two of their dogs safe and healthy.

But the sad old white dog with matted hair provided one of the biggest surprises of all, the students said.

The women examined him, shaved him, cleaned his wounds and bathed him. When they finished, they realized the “old dog” wasn’t old at all, but rather a young puppy. They named him P.J.

Over time, the students watched P.J. emerge from his funk and turn into a lively, happy puppy who loved to play and frolic with the volunteers.

Herd said P.J.’s transformation made all of the volunteers realize why they we were there — and that they really were making a difference.

Although Herd hasn’t been back to Louisiana, she has continued to work with four-legged Katrina refugees.

“I’ve been doing an externship with the Maury County Emergency Clinic this summer and, in two months, we’ve treated 14 heartworm-positive dogs that were rescued from New Orleans,” she said.

“There are still many people and animals from the Gulf Coast who are still in need almost one year later. It is very disappointing.”


Contacts:

Amy Blakely, (865) 974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu