We arrived at Donna Powell's house at 6:00 am, having driven since 2:30 pm the day before. We didn't want to wake up all the people who were staying in her house, but it turned out Donna was already up and had her sofas made into beds for us. Just as we finally laid down, it was time to rouse the rest of the crew to head out on their first rescue mission of the day. So with our heads on the pillows for only 5 minutes, we were back up and ready to help.
Nell and Larry Knapp of K.A.R.E., a bird rescue organization in Michigan, and Donna's son Neil, were heading to the helicopter command center at the Baton Rouge airport. They had learned that a breeding flock of over 35 large birds, including macaws, had been left behind in a Chalmette home, a suburb on the east side of New Orleans. When they asked if I wanted to go, I forgot about being tired and ran in to wash my face, brush my teeth, and jump in their truck with them, bringing my medical supplies that we rushed to dig out of our big van. Vicki and Elizabeth stayed to help Donna and Gail Hale of AussieBirdToys with unloading the cages and food we brought. They spent hours assembling big, clean, new cages and moving birds into them, feeding and watering, medicating the ones that were sick, and handfeeding babies that had been left by breeders evacuating before the hurricane hit.
When the four of us arrived at the helicopter command center, we expected that the air would be full of noise and we would be lost in the confusion. Instead, we found pilots sitting around eating, chatting and smoking. A couple of people stood in line at a desk manned by army personnel, hoping to get a ride so they could photograph the flooding and devastation for some newspaper in Japan. The army was not very cooperative with us. They demanded all sorts of paperwork, phone numbers of the head of the Humane Society and other organizations, and told us we might be able to get a ride tomorrow.
A woman with FEMA overheard us and came over to find out what we wanted. She seemed to require less paperwork, but was still going to have to go thru many levels of approval before allowing us to be taken into the flooded city. At one point she decided that they could only take one of us, and the others pointed at me to be the most qualified. I could not imagine how I would manage being lowered by helicopter with 15 or 20 plastic dog crates into a flooded house, catch a flock of big parrots in flight cages, get them back outside to the roof and into the helicopter, all within a 30 to 60 minute period they said was all the time they could give me. It seemed impossible, but we all decided that if that was all we could get, I wouldn't hesitate to go and save as many as I could.
After 4 hours of talking to the Army, FEMA, the National Guard, and the Red Cross, and looking at their giant maps on the wall, it seemed that none of them knew whether the neighborhood where we were headed was even flooded. They suggested we just drive there and find out. We finally left, angry and discouraged, because a senator was on his way in to see the sights in person, and everyone wanted to fix their attention on the big political guy, leaving the bird rescue people to just sit on the ground in the heat. It was 3 days before a helicopter took anyone in to check those birds. All but 3 macaws had drowned.
A few of the rows of helicopters we saw, just sitting on the ground, silent and empty. Only one flight came in during the four hours we were there, carrying what looked like reporters and photographers.
Our next stop was the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, about 30 miles outside of New Orleans. I had been asked by Dr. Tom Tully at LSU, the ASPCA, and an official helping to manage the shelter (whose name I did not get because he didn't leave his name on my answering machine), to see if I could help with birds that were located there. The LDEC was a horse show type facility, with covered outdoor stalls, and was being used as the drop-off location for found animals of unknown ownership. Animals with known owners were being taken to other shelters all over the region.
I went directly to the veterinarian in charge, stating that since I only worked on birds, I would be happy to evaluate the birds they had and provide whatever treatment I felt was needed. She was in the middle of dealing with a half dozen other people, and told me one of the technicians would show me where the birds were kept. The tech was very happy to meet me, stating that the birds needed a veterinarian who knew more about their care than the vets who were in charge of them. She was especially concerned about an Amazon that was thin with a distended abdomen and swelling of the skin around the beak. She also stated that a Cockatoo had escaped from its cage, and since the cages were stacked in an open air horse stall, there was nothing to prevent the other birds from getting away if a cage door was opened.
Another technician saw us in the bird stalls, started grilling me on what I was doing there, and stated emphatically that someone named Richard was in charge of the birds and nobody else was to touch them. When I pointed out that there was a high risk of further escapes and that I planned to trim all their wings, she left and apparently went and complained to the veterinarian in charge. After looking over all the birds briefly and deciding on a plan, I went to speak to the vet, who told me that since we did not have the owners' permission, I was not to trim any wings, and that the sick Amazon was receiving subcutaneous injections of fluids, and she did not want me administering any other treatments. Since I did not know the names of any higher officials there, she had no idea who Dr. Tom Tully was, and since a technician told me the birds were being transferred to LSU later that night, I gave up, hoping that they would be there when I visited LSU the next day. I did not see them at LSU, and do not know where they ended up.
Birds in small cages at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center were stacked on top of each other on the dirt floor of open air horse stalls. One cage door being opened could mean escape into the wild. It was a terrible irony to think that the Cockatoo that had been left behind by its owner to try and survive a category 4 hurricane, which was then found and rescued from a deserted city, saved from drowning or starvation, would probably die since it escaped and would not know where to find food and water. There were over 20 birds here at the time I visited. Not a large number, but still worth trying to help.
I offered to bring over a larger cage for this Green Wing Macaw, but was told all birds had to remain in the cages they came in. He can barely sit upright as his head almost touches the top of the cage and his tail is against the grate. Other cages are precariously balanced on top of each other next to him.
Each cage had paperwork with all the known information about each bird. Some of the papers had been put on top of cages, and the birds had shredded them, so you could no longer read where or when they had been found.
With nothing to do but try to find my new friends Larry, Nell and Neil and try another mission, I took a few minutes to look around and photograph some of the other animals at the LDEC. It is difficult to convey the size and scope of the place. I didn't think to count, but there were probably 10 or 12 rows of stalls like this, each stall containing anything from one horse to 5 or 6 dogs or cats to 15 birds.
Dogs in crates barked and whined, cats cried, and the smell of feces and urine hung in the hot, humid air. As you walked, streams of water ran across the ground from crates that were being hosed out, and your shoes carried the residue. New arrivals sat in rows of crates in the aisles, waiting to be moved to stalls. In this first picture, my two bags of medical supplies sit unused in the foreground.
While I was being rejected by the vet in charge, Larry and Nell had been meeting with Humane Society, ASPCA, and any other officials they could find at the LDEC, trying to find a way to get into the city to get to the flock of big birds. Apparently all of the human rescue agencies had their choppers and pilots on standby in case more human victims were found, and at that time they were not running animal rescue flights. Having more reporters, more photographers, and more senators fly around and gawk when they could see it all on television was a higher priority than saving some animals.
We returned to Donna's house around 3:00 in the afternoon, depressed by the entire wasted day so far, but found that those who had remained at the house had been making great progress. Many birds had been moved into the house from the carport in new cages, and more cages and playstands were being assembled so the tame birds could come out for a bit. I laid down on the couch while the others discussed plans. I guess they felt sorry for me and didn't wake me up when they decided to drive to Chalmette. When I woke up 4 hours later, there was nobody there except a woman I hadn't met. She was working on organizing bird food and assembling playstands.
The others returned after 10:00 pm. They had been stopped and had guns pointed at them by National Guard troops who would not let them into Chalmette. I broke the news to them that when I called my office to check messages, the woman from FEMA had called my office back in Missouri since I had given her my business card. She was angry that we had left, said they were going to give us a helicopter but since we had "disappeared" (after sitting there for 4 hours), she was no longer going to authorize it. The last thing she had told us before we had left was to drive in because it probably wasn't flooded.
Nobody went to bed until after midnight. I had to sleep on an air mattress in the van because with all the Cockatoos, Cockatiels, and African Greys in Donna's house, my allergy to their dust was preventing me from breathing no matter how many asthma pills I took.