While displaced Hurricane Katrina victims waited for the floodwaters to recede from their Louisiana coastal homes this fall, University of Wisconsin veterinarians rushed to the disaster area to help the discarded pets and animals.
Unsuspecting of the storm's true magnitude, thousands of local residents fled or abandoned their homes as the hurricane approached the Gulf Coast. Expecting to return in a matter of days, hundreds of thousands of pets and animals were left to sit out the storm with minimal amounts of food and water.
When it became apparent many residents would not be able to return to their hurricane-ravaged homes, the animals found themselves on their own, forced to fight for their own survival.
"I really wanted to be able to donate or do something," UW veterinary technician Robin Sereno said. "So, we decided, I decided, to go down."
After hearing about the number of animals in need — estimated at a quarter of a million — from the Louisiana State University vet school, Sereno said she answered their call for help and arranged for her and two UW veterinary colleagues, Tracie Melahn and Sandra Colrud, to drive to one of the worst areas afflicted by the disaster.
When the group arrived in St. Bernard Parish, La., — about two miles from the French Quarter — they were in shock.
"It was like driving into Chicago, and it being totally, totally vacant," Melahn said. "It was very surreal. It was almost post-Holocaust — it's still weird talking about it."
St. Bernard Parish is surrounded by many of the area's oil refineries and when the hurricane hit, the storm waters mixed with hazardous chemicals to create a toxic sludge.
As the abandoned and feral animals — including, among numerous other animals, dogs, cats, pigs, geese, ducks and horses — strayed the area in search of food and shelter, the mud burned their paw pads and many became sick from the unsanitary conditions.
But there was little time for reflection, Sereno said, as the group encountered hundreds of animals in need of immediate attention, and thousands more waiting to be recovered.
"You almost had to shut off emotionally," she said.
To aid all of the animals in need, Melahn said she, Sereno and Colrud worked 14 hours a day at a shelter with other volunteers, administering care with donated supplies.
The three stayed from Nov. 10 to Nov. 17, spending their nights on a Merchant Marine boat and one night in Sereno's truck.
"At the point we left there, they said [rescuers] had recovered 15,000 animals out of a quarter of a million," Sereno said. "That's a pretty staggering number to me."
Yet UW veterinarians were not the only ones from the university to help. Third-year vet student and UW alumni and Rural Area Veterinary Services volunteer, Tracey Hageny was in Hattiesburg, Miss., from Sept. 15 to Sept. 23, helping animals recover two weeks after the disaster.
"The call went out for extra help, and I just thought I should go down there … and help save some animals," she said.