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Can Lessons Be Learned from the Shootings in Three New Orleans Schools?


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Within 48-hours after 9/11, I spoke with a search-and-rescue dog handler via cell phone as he described details of what was he was finding in the mountain of debris once called the World Trade Center. I cried as I spoke with him. Most of what he said was too graphically horrific to print.

Within 48-hours after 9/11, I spoke with a search-and-rescue dog handler via cell phone as he described details of what was he was finding in the mountain of debris once called the World Trade Center. I cried as I spoke with him. Most of what he said was too graphically horrific to print.

I once arrived on the scene with a police investigator just hours after an organized dog fight had taken place in a Chicago back alley garage. We found paraphernalia from the gang bangers who called themselves ‘dog trainers.’ It didn’t take much imagination to envision the torture that went on. Most of what I saw was too graphically horrific to print.

I covered the horrific practice of dumping unwanted pets into bins under cover of darkness, as you might drop a book you return to the library. Dogs were dumped into one bin, and cats and small dogs into another. The conditions in the bins were too graphically horrific to print.

If they were lucky, the pets were picked up by the so-called shelter in Murphreesboro, Tenn., the next day. My column brought national attention to the problem, which ultimately led to the closing of these pet dumps.

I’ve written this weekly syndicated column (and a weekly question-and-answer column for Tribune Media Services) for over a decade. I’ve covered it all, or thought I had, until last week.

After Hurricane Katrina, some residents of St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans evacuated to local schools, as they were told to do. Others were rescued from rooftops after the floods and delivered to the schools. As I’ve suggested, and animal welfare organizations have strongly urged, many residents brought their pets with them.

With no electricity or water at the schools, some residents were moved to barges, where medical care was also available. Local officials and police insisted they absolutely could not bring their pets.

Not given an option, they left behind whatever food they had – human and pet food – for their beloved animals. And for reasons still to be explained, they wrote cryptic messages on blackboards and walls, such as, "Please don’t shoot my pet." It was eerie proof they had reason to believe something awful was about to happen.

In all, more than 30 and perhaps up to 40 dogs, as well as several cats and at least one parrot and a ferret were found killed at the schools, many animals lying in pools of their own blood. It’s clear the animals were shot; ammunition was found on the scene. Some dogs appeared to have first been tortured with Venetian blind ropes found wound around their necks. The explicit details were too graphically horrific to print.

One unnamed source from a New Orleans animal shelter told me that no matter who was responsible for the slaughter, "The mentality here and in many places in America isn’t what it is in large urban areas. For many people here, shooting a deer, shooting a rabbit, shooting a dog, it’s all the same. They truly don’t understand how people can share their lives, let alone their beds, with their animals. After all, they are just animals."

Well, they may be "just" animals, whatever that means. But it’s clear the people who left their pets at the schools in New Orleans didn’t leave them by choice. For one thing, as it turned out, pets were allowed on the barges.

Dana Palmer, a volunteer pet rescuer from Grayslake, Ill., says those who left their animals behind are feeling "an overwhelming sense of guilt in addition to grieving for their senselessly murdered pets."

America witnessed how thousands of people refused to evacuate New Orleans because there was nowhere to go with their animals. Instead, they remained behind, risking their own lives. As Hurricane Rita approached Houston and nearby cities, it became abundantly clear that when at least some provisions were made for families to evacuate with their pets, the number of people leaving dramatically increased.

Long touted for being pet friendly, when Florida was threatened by Hurricane Wilma, officials may have been more organized and accommodating than those in Louisiana, but there’s still a long way to go. When asked about evacuation provisions for people with pets as Wilma approached, one mayor said animals weren’t allowed inside the shelters. But she cheerfully pointed out that the pets would be fine, as vet offices and kennels would pick up the slack.

This mayor didn’t have a clue. First and foremost, people don’t want to be separated from their animals. End of story.

Anyway, encouraging vet offices and kennels to take animals also encourages veterinarians, kennel workers and their staffs to jeopardize their own safety by staying behind. How does this help? What’s more, most vet offices aren’t no more impervious to hurricane damage than an average home.

What’s interesting is how divided America has become. There are clearly people who understand the human/animal bond, and those who don’t. I’ve received countless emails and letters on these topics referring to "animal people like us." Well, I don’t buy it. There shouldn’t be a distinction between animal people and those who aren’t. Issues concerning animal welfare are really about human welfare.

What happened to those pets in St. Bernard Parish schools was animal abuse, which is a felony. Dog fighting is also a felony. Scientists have proven that animal abuse is linked to acts of violence toward people. Doing nothing about acts of violence against animals begets further violence toward people.

Similarly, it’s wise to allow people to hold on to their pets during a disaster; for many, it’s the only thing they have to hold on to. No matter, it’s the humane thing to do.

A lot has changed since I began writing this column, but here’s something I said in one of my first columns. Ten years later, it’s time to repeat it: If we can be more humane toward animals, and learn to listen to them, at least there’s a chance that along the way, we can become humane toward one another, and learn to listen to one another. With listening comes respect, and with respect follows a celebration of our differences. Just because we’re more powerful and can abuse doesn’t give us the right to.

I’m weary of covering stories filled with details to graphically horrific to print. Maybe one day, reporters won’t need to worry about that. Maybe we can become more humane. There’s a greater enemy out there, and if events from this past year, such as the hurricanes, tsunami and earthquake, haven’t humbled us, perhaps nothing will.

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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