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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 September 2005, 16:52 GMT 17:52 UK
Saving New Orleans' animals
By Matthew Davis
BBC News website in New Orleans

Abandoned dog in New Orleans
Dogs are often pleased to see rescuers
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the fate of thousands of abandoned or missing animals was a low priority compared with human safety.

But as the search for the remaining human survivors nears an end, there is growing attention on one of the largest animal rescue efforts the US has seen.

Yet the fate of their pets is a hugely emotional issue for many people who survived Katrina and its aftermath.

With security restored in New Orleans and the waters slowly receding, thousands of volunteers from all over the US are in Louisiana to help reunite people and their animals.

'I have been distraught'

On Friday, the BBC spoke to a crew of female volunteers from a local animal welfare group who were launching their first boat mission to find stranded pets.

Volunteer Tara Barth says she was separated from the 15 cats and two dogs when she had to evacuate her house in the New Orleans lakefront area.

"I thought I would get the chance to go back and get them but we were then moved out of the city - I have been distraught.

Troops in New Orleans
Troops and police have helped rescue trapped animals

"Leaving them was the hardest thing I have ever had to do."

Ms Barth and fellow rescuers loaded their boat with dozens of animal cages and during their search intended to visit the homes with animals noted by the BBC.

Meanwhile, families scattered about the region are searching for pets with the same intensity as they might hunt for a missing relative.

In a sign of the controversy over the issue, Saturday's edition of the Washington Post was carrying a advertisement assailing the policy of forced abandonment of companion animals in the evacuation of New Orleans.

Forced at gunpoint

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals group said thousands of animals perished because federal authorities denied animal relief workers access to areas where stranded dogs and cats were known to be.

At a hotel in Baton Rouge, one man told the BBC he was forced from his house at gun point and ordered to abandon his dog.

But many rescuers have been allowing animals onto their boats - both as a means of persuading reluctant residents to leave, and because of their own love of animals.

At the Louis Armstrong International Airport, from where more than 22,000 people have been airlifted out of New Orleans, teams of Army veterinarians have been checking pets.

Volunteers in New Orleans
It is a long and dirty task for rescuers

Sheriff John Crawford, a volunteer from Michigan, says he and his team had been collecting dog food to feed the strays they encounter during their search for human survivors.

"They tug at your heart strings, and although we can't help them all we do what we can," he said.

Of the 1,400 animals at the New Orleans Zoo, just three were reported to have perished - two otters and a raccoon.

More than a dozen staff stayed behind to care for animals at the facility, which is situated on higher ground, and which escaped flood damage.

Turtle saved

But at the Audubon Aquarium in Canal Street, one of the US's leading aquariums, there was worse news.

Although the institution was not badly hit by the waters, many aquatic animals perished because life support systems failed amid damage to the power grid.

Some were saved however - including a green sea turtle named Midas - and police officers reportedly stepped in to help feed the penguins.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare is another group that has been searching door-to-door in New Orleans for pets displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Sad dog in New Orleans house
Thousands of animals have to be reunited with owners

Over the past two days, IFAW has rescued 43 dogs, 41 cats, a snake, a bird, an iguana, a hamster and a 300-pound potbelly pig.

The only way to get the swine into the boat without capsizing the craft was to build a makeshift floating ramp on the spot, the IFAW said.

Other unusual finds include a couple of chinchillas and 16 dogs that had been left in the Louisiana State University Medical Center.

A major part of the campaign is a joint effort between the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), as well as dozens of local organisations and thousands of volunteers from across the country.

Pet website

The Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in nearby Gonzales, Louisiana, has been serving as a base of operations for the rescue effort and as a makeshift animal shelter.

The centre has nearly 1,000 horse stalls and often hosts rodeos.

On arrival, the rescued pets are photographed and entered into a database. Owners have 15 days to claim the animals, then they go up for adoption. Those looking for their lost pets can log on to www.petfinder.org or call 225-647-0712.

Animals unable to be housed at the centre are being moved to temporary shelters in other areas of Louisiana and Texas.

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