When residents fled the city, many left their pets behind. Today, those animals and their offspring are roaming the streets in overwhelming numbers.
At around 1 p.m., Travis Causey is on his third call of the day. It's about 84 degrees and feels like 100 percent humidity. Even though the air conditioning is on full blast, the heat makes the seat of the Animal Control Officer's truck sticky. He eases into a parking lot in front of a small white house with a zig-zagged wheelchair ramp leading to the front porch in Gentilly, a neighborhood in New Orleans just north and across the river from the Lower Ninth Ward. Causey stops by to check on an abandoned and emaciated pitbull that had crawled into resident Christine Schexnayder's backyard to die.
Every bone on the brown and white pitbull is visible as the dog struggles to stand. A large grapefruit-sized tumor hangs just below its stomach in a loose pouch, without any muscle or fat to attach to. A cloud of fleas jumps off its bony body as Causey puts it in his truck. Schexnayder says the pitbull is one of a three-dog pack that someone recently dropped off in the parking lot in front of her house. The other two are just as close to death. There are always abandoned dogs in that lot, Schexnayder says. But Causey has a busy day and can't stay to look for the other two dogs. His next call, a dog bite victim, takes priority over looking for the other strays. He works late that day, as he does most days.
Story continues after slideshow (all photos by Wendi Jonassen)
Causey is a New Orleans native, and despite the city's problems, he can't imagine living anywhere else. The food isn't spicy enough elsewhere, he says. Occasionally he leaves the city to visit family in Texas--relatives who still live there after being evacuated just before Hurricane Katrina. Half the city didn't come back at all. Some didn't have anything to come back to and some just couldn't stomach the destruction.
Many residents left in a hurry when former Mayor Ray Nagin announced an emergency mandatory evacuation of the city at 10 a.m. on August 28, 2005. Outbound traffic clogged all lanes of the highways--on both sides of the median--for miles, for days. When people rushed out of the city, they left behind family heirlooms, pictures, and even their pets, thinking they would be back in a few days. The hurricane that hit New Orleans on August 29, however, breached 53 different levees, and the damage reached catastrophic levels. Residents weren't allowed back for three weeks, and then had to leave again, as another hurricane, Rita, threatened to breach the weakened levees that still stood.
The pets that didn't die in the storm were left to fend for themselves. In the end, over 600,000 animals were killed or stranded because of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, many houses that sustained 6 to 15 feet of water were uninhabitable after the storm and were abandoned. Hurricane Katrina didn't introduce stray dogs to New Orleans, but it certainly accelerated the problem. Today, much of the city looks as though it has not been touched since 2005, and the abandoned sections of New Orleans have been taken over by weeds, blight, and wild dogs.
The Lower Ninth Ward garnered most of the national attention after the floodwaters swept many houses off their foundations. Aside from a few new homes that Brad Pitt is building (which he seems to be styling after spaceships), much of the Lower Ninth Ward remains desolate, with nothing but scattered piles of old tires and weeds tall enough for an adult to disappear in. There wasn't much to return to in those neighborhoods. The Lower Ninth Ward lost 85 percent of its population.
But what most people don't know is that many of the houses and buildings in the rest of New Orleans--the Seventh Ward, Lakeview, Central City, the Upper Ninth Ward, New Orleans East--also sustained up to 15 feet of water, leaving them standing, but rendering them uninhabitable. Some residents returned to their homes in these neighborhoods, while their neighbors' homes are still vacant and deteriorating.
C.J. Fortune spends his afternoons sitting on his porch on St. Anthony Street, in the Seventh Ward, watching his neighbors walk past and greeting all of them. Soldiers escorted him out of the neighborhood during The Storm (which is how locals refer to Hurricane Katrina) and standing in front of a house where a hurricane evacuation plan is still posted, he raises his hand just above his belly to indicate what the water levels were. Chickens roam the streets in the Seventh Ward and opossums crawl into garbage cans. The house across the street from Fortune's, like many houses in New Orleans, still bears the infamous crosses that designate they were inspected for gas leaks, abandoned animals, dead dogs, or dead people. Just down the street, a two-story brick building that used to be a school still advertises a graduation ceremony that never happened in 2005 on its marquee, though some of the letters have fallen off.
All over the rest of the city, yellow flowers grow out of roofs and windows, engulfing houses with a bed of bright flora. The vines are appropriately called cat's claws because they grab onto houses and don't let go. The vivid colors match the décor of the brightly painted houses and almost fit into the design of New Orleans, except that they also instantaneously highlight blight and they are everywhere. On some blocks in New Orleans, more houses are being eaten by yellow than not.
Vacant houses, houses on stilts, and tall weeds in empty lots provide refuge for stray dogs. The animals have never been vaccinated, aren't eating safe food, and are exposed to an unknown variety of diseases, posing a health hazard if they approach children, the elderly, or anyone not expecting to see a wild dog. The dogs reproduce in the vacant homes and blighted lots, and since an adult dog can give birth to five to eight puppies twice a year, a fertile female stray exponentially adds to the population on the streets. Fortune often sees two stray dogs in the Seventh Ward, living in an abandoned blue house across the street, and one of them is pregnant. A different four-dog pack ran through his neighborhood a couple of months ago.
"The further we have gotten from Katrina, some of those stray problems have continued to grow," says Ana Zorilla, executive director of New Orleans SPCA, "and at this point, six, seven years later we are talking about significant numbers of strays." She attributes the stray problem to New Orleans' diminished population because without neighbors to report stray dogs, the animals can freely roam the streets, hide in empty houses and lots, and reproduce without anyone noticing or stopping them. "You have entire blocks of the cities where there is no one living," she says.No one but stray dogs.
The empty lots and vacant houses are also breeding grounds for crime. As of March of 2012, crime had risen by 10 percent since last year, with substantial increases in murders and rapes. The statistics show a two-year steady increase in serious crime. On May 8, 2011, a 17-year-old boy was shot and killed on a block where only two of the houses were occupied. No one saw the murder. The blight gives both neighbors and visitors the impression that no one cares about what happens, says Will Bowling, a blight and acquisition manager at the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative.
On January 26, 2012, a 53-year-old woman was gang-raped in a vacant house in Central City. "I am scared to be caught out at night down here," says New Orleans native Christine Schexnayder. "They will rape me in this [wheel] chair just like they raped that 50-something year-old woman in an abandoned house. These abandoned houses are causing a lot [of crime]. They are selling drugs from them and everything else."
Residents are responding to the rise in crime by getting dogs -- not for companionship, but for protection. Often the dogs are tied to poles with 60-pound chains, ropes, or hose extensions. When asked to describe the most shocking thing she has seen since being an animal control officer in New Orleans, Amanda Pumilia says, "The first time I saw a hanged dog." Occasionally a dog tethered to a pole tries to jump a fence and if the rope is too short, it hangs itself. Years of witnessing extraordinarily high levels of dog neglect and abuse have numbed Pumilia to these shocking images.
And sometimes dogs are left unattended for days in empty lots, where someone intends to build or where a vacant house is located. While on patrol recently, Pumilia drove past a house where the owners have a history of negligence. She found two pitbulls, one pregnant, in a small, fenced-in enclosure, with a cardboard box full of rotting chicken meat, swarming with flies, presumably for dog food. Officer Pumilia left a note warning that she would return the following day to check on them.
Since the dogs aren't socialized, if they get out or are released, they pose a significant threat to people. And since few are spayed or neutered, they get pregnant easily and often. When puppies are born and can't be sold, the owners simply dump them on the street while no one is looking -- which is easy to do in a city with entire blocks where no one is looking. Those dogs eventually reproduce in or around the vacant houses on lots, raising the stray population to unmanageable levels.
One day, a few weeks ago, three animal control officers gathered in the morning, preparing to go on a "sweep" -- multiple officers trying to corral a pack of wild dogs. On this occasion, the officers were going to gather dogs suspected of living in a building slated to be demolished. But before they left the SPCA center, they were rerouted to an alleged dog-fighting scene. Like animal neglect, dog-fighting is a rampant New Orleans issue that often overshadows the officers' attempts to curtail the stray problem.
One group of people who seem to have time to deal with stray dogs are the squatters and travelers, who abundant in number and typically travel by hopping on trains or hitchhiking across the country. They live cheaply and pick up whatever work they can get, playing music for tourists with an open guitar case in front of them or just panhandling. The weather is warm all year, compared to the rest of the country, and the city is cheap. And the numerous vacant houses give squatters and travelers enough reason to flood New Orleans, especially in the winter. They often arrive with their own dogs, which they get for companionship and protection while train hopping. While in New Orleans, however, they can't help but encounter stray dogs. "I have never seen so many stray dogs until I came to New Orleans," said Nicky, who has been squatting in the Upper Ninth Ward for six months. "I thought Meridan, Mississippi, was worse, but here by far has the most. It's disgusting. Everywhere I go, I see them. Everywhere. Especially in the more decrepit neighborhoods."
Allen Owen, a traveler from Birmingham, moves between Alaska and New Orleans throughout the seasons. He and his friends have noticed the increase in crime, as well as the many neglected dogs. Occasionally, they untie ones they find tethered and abandoned, care for them, and find them new homes. Both Nicky and Owen, like most other squatters and travelers, treat their own dogs well, often better than they treat themselves. "My dog always stays fed, and it's not just my dog stays fed. It's any dog that I see stays fed. Whether it's homeless or not," said Nicky. "I see other kids with traveling dogs and I offer them food."
This empathy for dogs may seem surprising coming from a community living on the fringe of a city, but it is a trait that others in New Orleans have noticed, even when squatters get in trouble with the law. "When they do get arrested ... we have to hold their animals until they are released from jail," Zorilla says. And though it seems contradictory that homeless people can provide for pets, even the SPCA acknowledges their high level of animal care. "I am always amazed that they all have veterinary records," Zorilla says. "The animals are well fed, you know, they are clean. They are not having skin problems. A lot of things that you wouldn't expect from an animal living on the street with a person." One of the animal control officers carries leashes with him to give to the squatters with dogs, so that they can comply with city regulations.
Seven years after the storm, the SPCA--like many people and organizations--is still fighting for FEMA money. The old SPCA center in the Upper Ninth Ward was flooded by six feet of water during the storm. When the water receded, it left mold and rotting walls and a useless building. Citizens all over the country donated enough money for the SPCA to rebuild in the West Bank, on the other side of the water from downtown New Orleans. But Zorrilla says the SPCA is still underfunded, and usually ends up on the wrong end of budget cuts. She says she has spent years hoping the FEMA money would come within the next six months. That money could help fund spay and neuter education, expand the facility to house more strays, or even pay for another officer or two to help round up wild dogs.
FEMA money won't solve all of New Orleans' problems as long as there's a shortage of people willing to do the work. After taking the emancipated pitbull back to the kennels at the SPCA, Officer Travis Causey heads back out to deal with a dog bite case in Central City, just west of downtown New Orleans. Central City, which endured over six feet of water after Katrina, has some of the most blatant blight and vacancy in New Orleans, and animal control officers end up in that neighborhood on most days.
When Causey arrives, five-foot high pile of construction trash and bags of clothes is collecting mold on the sidewalk in front of an abandoned apartment building. A painted piece of plywood next to the mound of garbage promotes a "Full Gospel Deliverance Church, Sun. Ser." that is obviously outdated by at least seven years. In that neighborhood, Causey can drive for blocks with houses on both sides barred with plywood, crawling with yellow weeds, and still bearing those infamous crosses that once designated inspection but now give evidence that the building hasn't been touched in seven years. "The people want to come back home," Schexnayder said, "but what are they coming back home to?"