99: Canine Candy Striper

99: Canine Candy Striper

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Canine Candy Striper

Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.

~Anatole France

For weeks we listened to the news about the devastating damage wrought on New Orleans and the Louisiana coast by Hurricane Katrina. Being a former veterinarian, I was particularly sensitive to the horror stories I heard about the thousands of displaced pets. I felt compelled to do something, but what?

I remember awakening in the middle of the night with the clear message: “Go help the displaced pets.” I was surprised by the message because I’d not been in practice as a veterinarian for over a decade and thought my small animal vet days were over. But as my mom was so fond of telling me, “Once a vet, always a vet.”

The next morning I searched the Internet and found that the Humane Society of the United States had a special need for volunteers who could travel to Gonzales, Louisiana within the next seventy-two hours. Seeing this, I rearranged my schedule to answer the call.

On Wednesday morning, September 21st, as I had breakfast with my family, we planned how to make my trip safe and of the most service possible. My thirteen-year-old daughter Amber, who I believe received a double dose of the “pet loving gene,” volunteered to call local animal hospitals and grooming parlors to ask if they would donate supplies for me to take. By that afternoon the van was filled, not only with gas, but also with donated pet food and medical supplies.

My destination was the Lamar Dixon Exposition Center in Gonzales, Louisiana, where over 1,200 displaced pets were housed. The warning on the instructions stated: “You must realize the Gonzales facility is extremely chaotic. You must be able to work independently as well as follow direction of the incident command and lead veterinary staff. Housing is up to you and involves camping. You will need to make your own travel arrangements and assume all related travel costs.”

I wondered what I was getting myself into. I had over fifteen hours to ponder that question as I drove south listening to increasingly alarming warnings on the radio about another tropical storm approaching Louisiana—Hurricane Rita. I confess, by Wednesday evening I had serious doubts about this mission of mercy as I watched the Weather Channel from my hotel room in Atlanta. I almost turned back for home—home to the love and safety of my family. Then I remembered the van full of supplies entrusted to my care by the other veterinarians and groomers. There was no way I was going home before I delivered them.

Shortly after arriving in Gonzales in the late afternoon on Thursday, I connected with Dr. Eric Davis, director of Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS), who had organized a team of veterinarians, techs and other volunteers to transport about one hundred and fifty dogs, plus about two dozen geese, ducks and chickens, to the farm at the Dixon Correctional Institute north of Baton Rouge. They believed the animals would be safer from the approaching hurricane, and there they could be cared for by the inmates under Dr. Davis’s supervision.

With the donated pet and medical supplies in my van, I felt compelled to be sure these generous donations were well utilized. I was guided to offer them to Dr. Davis and his team, of which I was now a part. We loaded the poultry in a couple of vans and the dogs in two large semi-trucks, and our team of about twenty volunteers traveled to the farm of Dixon Correctional Institute, arriving in the early morning hours. We worked until about four a.m. checking the animals in, making sure they were properly identified and comfortable in sections of the barn that the inmates we were working with referred to as cellblocks.

Everyone on the team worked diligently to bring order out of the chaos that we’d experienced at Dixon. For the next four days we made sure all the animals’ records were updated and accurate. Several of the veterinarians and techs began examining the pets and caring for those who needed medical attention. We ate prison food for our meals and were thankful to receive it. Most of the predominantly female team slept in the barn or the nearby farmhouse on palettes on the floor, six to eight per room. Although I had brought a tent, the weather was hardly conducive to outdoor camping, so I ended up borrowing a dog pillow from the donated pile of supplies to soften the back seat of my van, where I slept each night, including on the windy, turbulent night that Hurricane Rita blew through our area.

I awoke the next morning stiff but thankful to be alive and noticed that the barn that had become the center of my universe was still standing and had suffered only superficial damage to its metal roof.

During those four days and nights of helping establish a safe haven for the pets, I fell in love with all one hundred fifty of them. Among other roles, I appointed myself as their “canine candy striper.” I found a supply of donated pet toys, chew toys and dog biscuits that had been generously donated by people around the country. While everyone else was busy with the many other tasks of caring for dislocated pets, I made sure they each had something to play with and chew on, as well as giving them a little extra love and attention.

I left the farm late in the afternoon on Sunday for the long trek home, thinking my job was done, but somewhere between Louisiana and the mountains of North Carolina, I realized this little project of mine was far from over. I realized that many of these loving animals would never be reunited with their original families. What would happen to them? What an injustice it would be for so many people to save these courageous animals only to later have them euthanized. While they were receiving excellent care at the prison that was only a temporary solution. So, upon reaching home, I connected with the Animal Compassion Network, the largest no-kill, non-profit animal rescue organization located in Western North Carolina. I learned that through the hard work of other volunteers and foster homes they had found loving, permanent homes for more than 2,500 cats and dogs since 1999. I also learned they were receiving shipments of displaced pets from the Gulf States, no doubt some of which came from the D.C.I. Farm.

I guess my mom was right. “Once a vet, always a vet,” and may I never lose my love and compassion for our four-legged friends. It really has made for a most interesting life of purpose.

~W. Bradford Swift

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