Wednesday, December 03, 2008

My Thoughts Exactly

(or at least sort of...) As usual, I'm 9 months behind on my New Yorker reading. It's timely, though, as the current (for me) issue that I just read had a David Sedaris article about spiders. His opening on spiders discussed New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina and the bizarre (to me) outpouring of interest in the animals and animal rescue after the storm. Of course, I was interested in the animal situation in New Orleans after the storm- I am a shelter worker, and was a shelter worker then.

Multiple layers of the fascination with the Katrina animals disturbed/surprised me. First, I wondered: "what about the humans?" Obviously, I care about animals. I care deeply, enough to devote my life to them. As I said, I'm a shelter worker. I don't do it for the big bucks, I don't do it for the glory, I certainly don't do it for the easy, clean, cushy job. But I still have perspective on the world (I know it sometimes seems otherwise). Really, Hurricane Katrina affected so many people- human beings, with families- old people, young people, sick people, healthy people, of all races. And yet people viewing the storm from afar were obsessed with the animals. Something seemed just off. Nothing is wrong with caring and advocating for voiceless animals, but there was a disconnect, a distorted amount of money and effort and time and worry spent on the animals, as opposed to the humans affected by the storm. The second part of my curiosity/fascination about the emotional response to the animals of Hurricane Katrina was the obsession with THOSE animals. I get it, they were displaced, which made them special. At the time, I was working at a county-run, publicly funded shelter, which was always full. We did not take any Katrina animals, but I fielded sometimes 10 calls a day asking if we had any Katrina animals and where people could donate to them. I fielded calls for months about adopting Katrina animals, and people would straight up tell me they only wanted to donate to Katrina animals and only wanted to adopt Katrina animals. This struck me as odd, and strange, and frustrating. There are homeless, displaced animals everywhere in the United States. In your city, in your county, there are displaced dogs and cats and chickens without a dramatic story. Your local shelter needs donations of money and blankets and food and would love to have you adopt a dog. But something about disaster struck a chord with many many people, and made me just a *little* bitter.

So it was timely that I returned from New Orleans, where humans (and their animals) are still very much displaced, and read Sedaris' article. I was in New Orleans working on restoration, for humans (and animals if they had them). I think much of America has forgotten Hurricane Katrina, and lots of people think this is okay. When I mention my trip to people, they say, "oh well, it (New Orleans) isn't coming back." Ok, I guess. But there are still people there, people deserving of our support. New Orleans is part of this country, a part of this country that was very let down by this government in a time of need. Why didn't we respond in with the same outpouring of support to the people that we gave to the animals? It's not too late.

Here is the excerpt from April & Paris:

People I know, people who had never before contributed to charity, emptied their pockets when a cocker spaniel was shown standing on a rooftop after Hurricane Katrina hit, eight months later. "What choice did I have?" they asked. "That poor little thing looked into the camera and penetrated my very soul."
The eyes of the stranded grandmother, I noted, were not half as piercing. There she was, clinging to a chimney with her bra strap showing, and all anyone did was wonder if she had a dog. "I'd hate to think there's a Scotty in her house, maybe trapped on the first floor. What's the name of that canine-rescue agency?"
Saying that this was everyone's reaction is, of course, an exaggeration. There were cat people, too, and those whose hearts went out to the abandoned reptiles. The sight of an iguana sailing down the street on top of a refrigerator sent a herpetologist friend over the edge. "She seems to be saying, 'Where's my master?'" he speculated. "'Here it is, time for our daily cuddle and I'm stuck on the S.S. Whirlpool!!'"

Sedaris writes tongue in cheek, in part. But this hits home for me. People care about the cockers and the Scottys and the iguanas, but what about granny? I spoke to a woman this week who relocated from New Orleans with her 4 kids after spending 2 nights sleeping under the freeway during the storm with her family, to stay dry. She told me her whole family has moved back to New Orleans but she won't go, so she is here alone, with her kids, because she knows the levees have not been repaired. Who cares about her? This is Mr Paul, whose house we helped restore. He is just moving back into his house, three years after the Hurricane, with his wife and three children with the help of the St Bernard Project.

mr paul- stranger #21

Don't worry, his two dogs from pre-Katrina are moving back with him, as is Tyson, his boxer that he acquired while living in Houston before coming home.


Marilyn Sue said...

After Katrina people saw that people were not being helped properly and as a result, animals were left entirely to fend for themselves. Most could not survive.

I spent the weeks after Katrina working in a people shelter and coordinating an online effort to find missing relatives.

As that work ended I stumbled across an online database of animals with address information. I put together a group that spent a year reuniting animals with their families.

People were very angry after Katrina and tried to pick up the pieces because our government failed New Orleans and the Gulf area. Animal workers pitched in to rescue animals. That was their expertise and that job needed to be done.

The size of the animal rescue was unprecedented. The media found that story as compelling as filming interviews in evacuee shelters. It also went on after the shelters had closed.

Speaking as someone who saw firsthand what San Antonio did for evacuees, I do not think there was more concern or care for animals.

People wanted their donations to go where specified, whether to help evacuees or animals, hence the calls you got.

themacinator said...

Marilyn Sue-
Thank you for your response. I don't think I articulated my frustration/bemusement as well as I would have liked, which always seems to be the way for me.

First of all, I'm so grateful that you were there- both for the people and the animals. I'm grateful to ALL the people that were there for the humans, and all the animals. Obviously both were and are needed.

My befuddlement came from living in California, and seeing the overwhelming emotional and financial response for the plight of the Katrina (and Gustav, and Ike) animals. Sedaris' excerpt sort of shows my bafflement. Thinking back, I'm sure I got a skewed version of it, because I'm in the animal field. People weren't going to call the shelter and say, "how can I help the human flood victims?" They were only going to call about the dogs and cats. It was everywhere my animal-oriented eyes turned. On the other hand, people who had never seemed to care before cared now, and they didn't care locally, they cared about storm victims. I care, too. I don't begrudge that they care, I just am sort of amazed- not just at this disaster, but at all disasters- that it's only in times of serious distress that we notice the problem at hand. The problem is every day, everywhere.

I'm also sort of amazed that the minute New Orleans is out of the media spotlight, communally, we've forgotten about it (I don't mean to point fingers- I can tell you haven't!). But being in New Orleans last month was a sad wakeup call. We should still be there- animal lovers and whoever, the problem is ongoing.

You're absolutely right- people wanted their money to go where was specified, and I always gave the best information that I could. It was just the same sense of "woah, all of a sudden animal welfare, 2000 miles away, matters?" The disconnect was what I was trying to articulate.

Thank you for everything you do, and for your thoughtful response.