WASHINGTON – When Scotlund Haisley said he fell in love with New Orleans,he wasn't referring to the excitement of Bourbon Street or the unique taste of red beans and rice.
He and six others animal rescuers spent 16 days in the city traipsing through toxic water,busting down doors and scaling trees looking for stranded pets. He said the reward was far more gratifying than a souvenir from the French Quarter.
Haisley,37,and three other employees of the Washington Animal Rescue League,along with volunteers,congregated Tuesday evening at the Washington National Cathedral with a few of the 55 pets they rescued from the hurricane devastation in East New Orleans.
“I don't know if there's a better feeling than to know you've saved lives,” said Haisley,the league's executive director.
More than 100 Washingtonians and their pets joined them for the annual St. Francis Day blessing of the animals,a day dedicated to “the Lord's creatures.”
The private,non-profit rescue league made two trips to the battered city and saved an estimated 800 animals for adoption in New Orleans and Washington and treated an additional 1,000 at a shelter there.
“It was all as dramatic as it sounds. … I've never seen the tragedy and suffering that I saw there,” said Haisley,who's spent 17 years in animal rescue.
The group performed the field rescues in over-90-degree weather with little sleep – they slept in their van – treated some animals in the field and disposed of bodies of pets killed in the hurricane or the flood that followed.
On the group's first trip,most animals they found were alive – on the second trip,the reverse was true.
“There are thousands and thousands of displaced animals down there right now,” said Haisley,who plans to go back to for more rescues.
All of the animals brought here – dogs,snakes,cats,birds and a potbelly pig – were surrendered by Louisiana families and will be up for adoption at the league's shelter. The rescued dogs were given names like Bayou and Jambalaya,reminders of their former home.
Not long after Katrina,the Humane Society of the United States called on hundreds of teams to rescue the many animals that were not allowed go with their evacuated owners.
A bipartisan coalition in the House has introduced legislation that would require emergency evacuation plans to take pets into account,both because some pet owners refused to evacuate without their animals and because of the number of animals left behind.
“We were a spoke on a very big wheel,” Haisley said. “I couldn't be more proud of the team.”
Erika Leckington,director of animal welfare for the rescue league,said she formed long-lasting relationships with other rescuers.
“You meet a lot of really good people,” she said. “Everybody's down there for the same reasons.”
The cathedral ceremony attracted local pets of all shapes and sizes,including a 210-pound mastiff and four featherweight bunnies that belong to the cathedral. While the ceremony honored animals victimized by the hurricane,it was also about animal welfare in general.
“We're trying to get people to adopt animals regardless of the animals rescued from Katrina,” said Jennifer Brickman,marketing director for the rescue league.
“It's huge that people would adopt the best animal for them,not just one that was rescued,” she said. “Adopting any animal at the shelter helps the rescued pets because it makes room for more.”