Annette Becherer spent a week with Noah's Wish, an animal rescue group founded in 2002, in a warehouse full of Hurricane Katrina dogs in Slidell, La.
With 300 panicky dogs barking 24 hours a day, it's a good thing Becherer likes canines.
"The first few days I was just overwhelmed," the Champaign woman says. "By the end of the week, I didn't notice the barking."
The director of residential programs at the Developmental Services Center used her vacation time to take what most wouldn't consider a vacation. She slept on floors and in a parking lot in heat and humidity, but she says her experience has been worthwhile – she was even tempted to adopt a dog.
Becherer is not alone in helping pets evacuated from Gulf cities.
A Parkland College vet tech faculty member, Sarah Hurley, was in Louisiana last week. She spent nine days in Gonzales, La., where 1,500 animals – everything except cattle, she says – were processed, photographed and treated.
Also, the Champaign Area Trap Spay/Neuter and Adoption Program is collecting food and supplies – but no more dog beds, Hurley urged.
Other volunteers came from the University of Illinois veterinary medicine school and the Champaign County Humane Society.
Julie Workman of the Humane Society has had a truck donated that is now situated on Route 105 south of Monticello near the General Cable plant. Her group is accepting donations at the truck or at the Humane Society, but they probably will be delaying the truck's trip south for up to two weeks, because of Hurricane Rita.
Toni Wendling, a volunteer who will be going to Mississippi, said one animal lover donated 14,000 pounds of hay, enough to fill a truck trailer. Pickup trucks will be added to the effort, she said.
Becherer arrived in Slidell with food and dog supplies donated by friends. She never had to wait to figure out where she could help. There was work to go around for everybody.
"The dogs went through triage first," she said. "One Rottweiler brought in on (Sept. 15) had been left in a home at the beginning of the storm and lost 60 percent of its body weight. We found a bull female that had just given birth, but not her puppies. She was doing pretty well."
The winds and floods left the ownerless dogs shaky and confused.
"They're very traumatized," Becherer said.
"You have to coax the dog out of the crate or go in the crate yourself. Their skin is a mess; fleas are real bad; there are fungal infections. Their systems have been compromised by lack of food or water, so their hair is falling out."
Hurley agreed with that assessment.
"When they would come in, a lot of them had been trapped in houses, so we saw a lot of emaciation, a lot of dermatitis from contact with contaminated floodwaters, dehydration and diarrhea," she said. "But not too many injuries; a few bite wounds."
The biggest problem was lack of food and water.
"As days go on, the people going out looking for animals, they might find 300 in an afternoon – everything from potbellied pigs, fish, chickens to ducks " Hurley said. "But eventually there will be a higher percentage of dead pets."
Becherer, who returned to Champaign a week ago today, has always had an interest in animals and animal welfare, and is on her fourth dog adopted from the Champaign County Humane Society.
She read a book by the founder of Noah's Wish called "Out of Harm's Way."
"I didn't know there was anybody out there who did animal rescue after disasters," Becherer said. "That opened my eyes."
The Slidell animal control department cooperates with the program. Though she worked exclusively with canines, the Slidell center takes in all kinds of animals, and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture is doing direct rescues of New Orleans pets.
There were people who worked with cats. And there was a lizard, geese, birds and a wolf-dog hybrid (illegal in Illinois).
Hurley said the animals were photographed, and their data was written down.
"A lot of the phone numbers associated with the tags weren't working," she added. "Sometimes rescuers were able to go to addresses on the tags."
Becherer said she was amazed by the resilience of the dogs.
"I saw some pit bull puppies brought in from New Orleans with 10 other dogs. They couldn't stand up, but they were wagging their tails. By the time I left, they were very loving and playful," she said.
The day started around 7 a.m. and ended at 8:30 p.m.
"Many days you didn't get to eat, it wasn't so easy," Becherer said. "One day, we had 23 dogs in one afternoon. Because of the risk of infection – a lot of the dogs had diarrhea – you had to be extremely careful about cleaning them. Vets were doing free spaying and neutering," she said.
Three hundred dogs put pressure on the facility.
"They're in metal cages, and sometimes these crates are stacked one on top of each other," she said.
Becherer said she was impressed with human-canine interaction after the disaster.
"There were some remarkable situations, people looking for dogs or cats and finding them. The people who couldn't take their pets came back daily to walk them," she said.
The reunions were often very emotional.
"On Friday, a guy in his 30s found his basset hound, just brought in that morning. His partner had drowned, his house was gone. His pet was what he had left," Becherer said.
Another man, 75 years old, lived for two weeks in his truck with three large dogs. He spent his last money on gas for air-conditioning to keep them comfortable, she said.
"When he came in, he broke down, but he was reassured we would take care of them. He visited them every day. He was still living out of his truck," she said.
Noah's Wish holds the animals for at least 30 days. After that, they try to find foster families within two hours of the Slidell area.
After 60 days, they are placed up for adoption.
"There were probably a half-dozen dogs I connected with, one in particular I might still," Becherer said. "But I'm hoping she finds her mom."