For me, one of the most heartbreaking images of Katrina was a picture of a dying dog, resting underneath a junked car. At a certain point, the press photographs of bloated human bodies floating on the greasy Louisiana water became numbing - they were just too awful - and it was this image of a sick mutt that reminded me of Katrina's tragic scope. Thousands of animals were left behind by their owners, and thousands more wandered the streets after the authorities separated owners and pets in the shelters. Some animals survived when their owners didn't.
But the sad saga of Katrina animals continues. Now the pets are entering the legal system. This newspaper story - by my talented girlfriend, Sarah Liebowitz - recounts the difficult decisions that lay ahead. After the storm, many pets were distributed across the country to pet shelters. (A few dozen ended up in my local shelter.) These shelters often kept the pets for 90 days, and then put them up for adoption. But now the original owners want their beloved pets back. In some cases, they are taking legal action.
For Terry Leichty, the worst part of Hurricane Katrina wasn't the water seeping into her New Orleans apartment. It wasn't the intermittent phone service or the lack of running water. It was the fact that several days after the storm swept the city, authorities forced Leichty, who is in her early 70s, to leave her dog behind.
One year later, the two are hundreds of miles apart.
The dog, Ah Boo, landed in the care of Puppy Angels, a Hopkinton-based rescue group. After giving his previous owner several months to reclaim Ah Boo, the group put him up for adoption. "The dog is with a very loving family. He sleeps in bed,"said Sherry Morrall, president of Puppy Angels. Leichty, meanwhile, settled in London, Ky., after being evacuated to Baton Rouge, La., for medical treatment.
Now, Leichty wants Ah Boo back. "Ah Boo was really all that she had, all that she cared about,"said Henry Fridley III, Leichty's son. After numerous discussions, Morrall has agreed to release the names of Ah Boo's current owners to Laura Allen, an attorney working to reunite displaced residents with their pets. If Ah Boo's new family doesn't return him to Leichty, they could face legal action, Allen said.
"There are a lot of different victims here," Morrall said. "We're all here for the same thing, which is animal welfare. Unfortunately, someone's going to be very unhappy."
Long after the floodwaters receded, disputes over pets evacuated from the storm are playing out across the nation.
Like Morrall, other New Hampshire rescue workers believed that after caring for Katrina animals for three months, they could put the pets up for adoption. But some residents who fled storm-ravaged areas are still working to track down and win back their pets. Clashes over ownership have generated a handful of court cases, and dozens more have been resolved without legal action.
"The law is absolutely muddled. . . . There simply is no law in the states where the dogs were," said David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law, who specializes in animal law.
To decide the disputes, "the law would look at both sides of it. One was the original owner using due diligence in trying to find the animal. (And) as the holder of the animal, you have to let the world know that you have the animal," Favre said. "At some point, the law would draw a line and say, 'You waited too long.'"
I don't know what the answer is. My instincts tell me that the animals should stay where they are, that it's not fair to make these animals travel across the country again. But I also sympathize with the victims of Katrina, who are only now beginning to pick up the broken pieces of their lives. Regardless of how the cases play out, I hope the losing side does the right thing, and rescues another unwanted pet from their local animal shelter.