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About these stories…

My stories here are all true—and some contain messages from the animal world that we humans need to know. There is something special about each story, whether it happened in my neighborhood, with a client or during one of my disaster-response deployments.  I hope you find them heartwarming and enriching.

Stories

Hurricane Katrina

On September 12, 2005, I found myself in Louisiana, where I spent Week 3 and Week 4 after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans working to save pets that got left behind in the disaster. I had been deployed by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) as part of the largest animal-rescue operation in history. For those two weeks, I heard some of the most heroic and moving stories from the animals themselves about how they survived the hurricane and subsequent flooding.

It’s taken me 10 years, but I’ve finally been able to get down on paper my memories and the notes I took at the time. They’re in my new book, Tails of Triumph: Animals Tell Their Katrina Stories. And my book also spotlights some very dedicated people who helped rescue, treat and care for thousands of animals affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Helping Frightened and Confused Animals at the Shelter

One of the first jobs I had during my deployment was helping with the initial intake of animals that were rescued from New Orleans and brought to a facility 60 miles away. I tried to identify the dogs that were aggressive and talk to them to calm them down. By explaining to the dogs and other animals during check-in that the veterinarians would be giving them an exam and poking them a bit, I helped us save time and potential injury.

One of the volunteers asked me to work with a dog that had been labeled “very aggressive.” The dog, who told me her name was Star, said, “I was swimming for days and floating on things that went by. I lost my house and my people. My brother floated away on a boat with some people and I was all alone. The water went down and I could touch muddy ground again, but someone put me in a kennel and brought me here. How am I going to find my brother and my family? I just decided to bite anyone who got close so they would leave me alone and let me go home.” When I explained that the facility was where her owners would look for her, and she would be well-fed and taken care of, she turned into a sweet and docile dog.

Saving Pets Trapped for Weeks in the Muddy Rubble

I also got assigned to do search and rescue in one of the hardest hit places in New Orleans: the Lower Ninth Ward. Among the animals we saved there was a spotted pit pull that had been tied to his nearly destroyed house for three weeks without food or water. He initially refused to come with us and told me, “I have to guard. That is my job.” When we got him cut loose and away from the house, he looked back and said, “There’s nothing here to guard anymore. It’s all gone.” He described that when the levees surrounding the area had washed away, the flooding water had slammed him up against the house. “I almost drowned, but the water went down,” he said. He was glad to leave.

Another dog we rescued, a pit bull, told me that his owner had chained him under the house because he wouldn’t fight other dogs and wanted him dead. It took another volunteer and me working with three National Guardsmen nearly two hours to get him free. His was one of the saddest stories I heard. But it had a happy ending when he was adopted by a caring new owner.

The photos on this page, and one of the stories in my book, are about a dog we named Pancake. The Fire Department helped us rescue him through a hole they cut in the roof of his house. We got him out alive, unlike his owners and his brother, a German shepherd. He was so exhausted from his ordeal and there was so much debris in the yard, that it took us 45 minutes to get him to the rescue van. Once we got Pancake to the shelter, he didn’t want to let me go. He put his front paws around my hips and hung on for dear life, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved me.” There was not a dry eye in the area—mine included.

A New Law for the Animals of California

After I returned home to California and recovered from the stress of my two-week deployment, I realized all of the problems caused when people are not allowed to take their pets during emergency evacuations. And I wanted to make sure that wouldn’t happen in California. One of my clients, who sat on an advisory board for then-Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger, said, “If you ever want to get a law passed, let me know.”

I was invited to a meeting at the Emergency Operations Center in Sacramento to discuss what our state could do to prepare for a major disaster. Everyone who was anyone in the animal world was there, including representatives from the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the University of California, Davis, as well as many veterinarians and the West Coast director of The Humane Society of the United States. The word got out at the meeting that I had a friend with the ear of the governor. I was connected to a woman at the Food and Agriculture Dept., who got me to someone at the office of a state legislator.

At the same time, my friend on the governor’s advisory board was doing what he could to make the governor and his wife, Maria Shriver, aware of the situation. He showed them some pictures of my visit to Katrina as well as a piece of paper with a handwritten, scrawled message, “Please don’t let this happen here!” I soon heard from the Emergency Operations Center in Sacramento that someone from the governor’s office came around asking questions.

California Assembly Bill 450, which allowed pets to be evacuated with people, was actually written by a legislative staff member. She contacted me with advice on how to obtain and fax signatures to her office, so they would travel with the bill, giving it a better chance for success. I got the word out to all the animal organizations and asked them to forward the bill to everyone they knew. I called the woman back about four hours after sending my emails and she told me they might have to get another fax machine because they already had over 400 signatures! Later, she told me, “It’s a very impressive amount of paper that will now follow this bill everywhere it goes.”

Finally the bill was passed and Governor Schwarzenegger signed it on September 29, 2006. It usually takes two years to pass a piece of legislation, but we got this one through in nine months—a huge record that I am very proud of. The bill became effective on January 1, 2007, requiring California’s disaster preparedness agencies to consider household pets, service animals, equines and livestock in emergency evacuation planning.

My Continued Commitment to Protecting Our Pets

All in all, it was a good 12 months for me—from helping animals in Louisiana to advocating for animals in California. I received a congratulatory bouquet of flowers from someone very special to me, with a card that put things in perspective. It read, “Terri, only you could do radio, T.V. and pass a bill through the Assembly in one week.”

Let me leave you with one last thought from Katrina: Please, if you ever need to evacuate your home, TAKE YOUR PETS WITH YOU.

See more Katrina photos on Terri’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Copyright 2016 Terri Steuben • Site credits