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Sunset was just around the corner as the pilot threw open the aircraft door. I popped my head in and saw nearly 60 crates stacked along the interior of the DC-3's fuselage. Staring back were mostly pit bulls, one German Shepherd and a handful of ca



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Sunset was just around the corner as the pilot threw open the aircraft door. I popped my head in and saw nearly 60 crates stacked along the interior of the DC-3’s fuselage. Staring back were mostly pit bulls, one German Shepherd and a handful of cats.

These refugees, recently housed at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center from Gonzales, Louisiana, were loaded onto a tractor-trailer 15 hours earlier before heading to the Baton Rouge airport for air travel to a new life in New Jersey. These animals, along with nearly 5,000 others found shelter at the Louisiana staging area, have been homeless since Hurricane Katrina slammed in New Orleans several weeks ago.

Since the August 29 disaster, relief in the form of monetary donations, supplies and volunteers came forth in a wave bigger than the storm surge that flooded the vulnerable city known for its Mardi Gras, po-boys and the ubiquitous “go-cup.”

All along, the American Kennel Club has been providing relief to these animal victims in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama with thousands of crates, bowls, collars, and shipments of dog food. On October 1, the AKC chartered a plane for the St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, New Jersey, to help them care and house the dogs until they could be reunited with their owners or readied for adoption.

Before meeting the World War II-era plane on the tarmac at Morristown Municipal Airport, several co-workers gathered at St. Hubert’s. At one point the director took us to a conference room nestled above the shelter. As she opened the door, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when the black and white house interior transforms into a vivid burst of color dominated by a yellow brick road.

There I stood among the treasures and trophies of the late Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, whose former estate, Giralda Farms, housed St. Hubert’s. In 1939, she began the concept of this shelter to help dogs in need.

The irony of this moment was not lost. Mrs. Dodge was considered one of the pioneers in purebred dogs for many years, breeding internationally famous German Shepherds, among others, and hosting the famous Morris & Essex dog show on her estate grounds for several decades. She is considered by many in the dog fancy as the most influential “dog person” of the 20th century.

In that trophy room above the shelter, I felt her legacy. Purebred dogs were her passion but her heart was about helping all dogs.

Gazing at an autographed photograph of Rin Tin Tin, given to Mrs. Dodge in the 1930’s after a famous visit together, I felt a warm glow coming from the Sterling loving cups etched with Westminster, Westchester and Trenton kennel clubs. Fortified with purpose, it was time to head over to the airport.

Peering into the first crates coming out of the plane it was clear we had some “fighting dogs.” Mostly likely part of an underground urban culture where dogs, treated more like weapons than pets, served as disposable pawns in an illegal sport. Some still bore fresh scars from their battles. A chestnut colored male, with a rusty chain-link collar hanging off of what used to be a muscular neck, scanned the horizon for his owner.

The pilot warned me not to put my fingers through the wire openings as I tried to grab a 90-pound dog running around in his crate. Between helping to unload dogs and talking to the media, I was all business. I was in work mode. I was doing my job. However, each time a pair of eyes locked onto mine, to see if I was their owner, it melted my reserve. After unloading, we followed the dogs back to the St. Hubert’s Katrina K-9 Care Center, an old guide dog kennel converted for sheltering these dogs. After a veterinarian exam and armed with a new bed, each dog would begin a new life soon. 

While driving home in the dark eager to see my own dogs, I thought about what those dogs had been through. Seeing the stress and confusion in their eyes as they came off the plane began to register with me. This was just a small percentage of the volume of dogs, cats, horses and other animals who survived the hurricane.

At that moment, the enormity of the situation hit me. I pulled over and had a good cry. Now I understood why someone would volunteer to wade into toxic sludge to pluck an abandoned dog from a porch the owner would no longer grace.    


Lisa Peterson, a long-time breeder of Norwegian Elkhounds, is the Director of Club Communications at the American Kennel Club. Contact her at ask@lisa-peterson.com  or Dogma Publishing, P.O. Box 307, Newtown, CT 06470.

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