Sunday, 8:40 a.m.: Arrive at Louis Armstrong International Airport
I look nervously out the window of the plane as it descends over the bayous outside New Orleans, and I see what look like toy shrimp boats scattered and broken on twisted docks. The day is warm and sunny. I step into the familiar airport with no idea of what I'll find of the city I called home for three years. I take the shuttle to Budget Rental Car, ask whether I-10 is passable, and drive straight to the French Quarter. I've only got till 5 o'clock to explore the city. I have beignets at Cafe du Monde, which seems as packed as ever. I buy an abstract painting I call "Seven Perfect Storms" (it's nine circle-like blobs of thick frosting paint, but two of them, I feel, are artfully imperfect) in Jackson Square from a painter who is no longer able to afford his Royal Street gallery. I wander into Sunday mass at St. Louis Cathedral, which is also full of people. I have shrimp remoulade at the Napoleon House.
Once I get away from this most central of tourist spots, it's evident that the city is seriously depopulated. There's spray paint on the shotgun houses. The streetcar tracks are covered in thick mud. There's little traffic on the streets. The top-story windows of the tallest hotels downtown are still blown out. The gutted interiors of homes clog the narrow streets of uptown so you can hardly see where you're going. The doors at Tulane University, where I earned a degree in French and English, are locked, and the desks are stacked up in the hallway.
But my overall impression is that New Orleans is a functioning, albeit smaller, city. There's no more toxic soup. The roads are mostly cleared. Some of the stores are opening back up. There are families spending a Sunday afternoon in Audubon Park.
Sunday, 5 p.m.: Drive to Tylertown, Miss.
Jeff Dorson, founder and director of the Humane Society of Louisiana, picks me up at Budget. It's great to finally meet him after working with him for weeks via cell phone and email setting up the Foolanthropy drive. Melissa, one of the society's only paid employees, is also in the van. We drive across the Mississippi into Algiers, take a look at the society's wind-scattered shelter (which somebody appears to be living in), and then drop Melissa off at her mother's house. She tells me she hasn't had a day off or been back to see the city since Aug. 28. After Jeff sees her inside, we begin the drive north to Camp Katrina.
During the two-hour drive, Jeff asks me about what I saw on TV of the storm and its aftermath. He's interested in every detail I can remember, since he would have been too busy rescuing cats and dogs to watch even if there had been electricity. I talk till we pull off I-55 at McComb and onto two-lane roads. I ask him how many animals are being cared for at Camp Katrina and what kind. "Lots of dogs. Lots of pit bulls and rottweilers. There's a lot of dog fighting down here. The society's been fighting it for years. We have a few dozen cats. We also have a few rabbits and gerbils," he says. "We had to have people stand guard at night for the first couple months because people kept trying to steal the meanest pitties and rotties."
When we pull up at the security gate at the camp and I get out of the van, it's bitter cold -- much colder than I expected. I immediately realize I didn't pack enough warm clothes. I get a quick tour of the inside of the house and meet a few of the volunteers. The cold, the early flight, the busy day, the drive, and the barking of dozens of unseen "pitties and rotties" make me want to take to my RV even though it's only about nine o'clock. "We all go to bed early around here," Jeff says, sensing I'm tired, and guides me to my RV with a flashlight.
Monday: An injured feral cat sends a vet to the ER
It's been awhile since I've worked with shelter cats, and I'm not sure exactly what state the animals will be in, so I'm a little nervous. My partner for the duration of my stay is Sean, a 19-year-old who stopped in from Santa Fe on his way to Washington for a job. After breakfast, we begin feeding and watering the cats, changing their litter, pulling out their "puppy pans" and wiping them down with bleach, and giving them fresh blankets.
I get to know a very vocal three-legged cat named Chevy who loves to sit in my lap but is understandably afraid of being held while I'm standing -- if I were to drop him, his three legs wouldn't cushion his fall. I meet a kitten named Cash, who was found wandering into an abandoned bank, and Picasso, who was found half-dead under an art gallery. Later in the day, the owner of the gallery comes to adopt Picasso now that he's been nursed back to health, and Cash seems visibly distressed without Picasso's company. Cash lets me carry her all over the house. But my favorite is Zoe. Her card says "feral," but I have her purring in my lap within an hour. On the wall is a handwritten sign that says, "If labeled feral, it may just be scared out of its mind."
I notice that one of the cats is bleeding on her neck and ear as I'm cleaning her cage, and as I look closer, she almost takes my face off as she lurches past me. We put gloves on to try to catch the injured cat, but it's no use -- she's jumped 10 feet to the top of the cages. We decide to let the vet deal with it.
We're also responsible for caring for the ferals. Words cannot do justice to the feral cat room. Maybe 30 cats run loose in this room. They scurry into corners as soon as we enter. They knock their shelving across the room nightly. They choose to sleep balanced on tiny ledges 12 feet off the ground. The litter boxes are so big and heavy, I can't empty them into a bag without falling over. One garbage bag explodes entirely under the weight of all that litter as we try to lift it, and we take a break to laugh hysterically in a pile of cat poop and dust.
When the vet comes in the afternoon, she quickly gets the loose cat into a carrier and takes her into the "examining room" (a table cleared in the living room triage) and asks me to tip the cage. Suddenly, the vet is screaming. The cat is clamped onto her hand for a good 10 seconds before managing to struggle free and run back into the cat room, where she hides all day. The vet is bleeding profusely. I try to find the cat in the registration book and decide it's probably a feral that's FIV+ that had been put in the domestic cat room without a feral label by oversight. Jeff takes the volunteer vet to the ER, where she waits five hours to get several stitches and shots.
Tuesday: A court case in Tangipahoa Parish
I wake today eager to get started. Jeff has an early court hearing for a year-old abuse case. We've been tasked with taking the emptied cages out of the cat room and cleaning three months' worth of litter from under them. This takes the better part of the day. I slip and fall mopping the floor. My Fool T-shirt is filthy. Sean and I notice we are constantly hungry, and food keeps magically appearing from neighbors and donors. A FedEx delivery of gourmet cookie dough arrives in the afternoon.
Jeff returns from court. "We won," he says glumly. "The owner had to pay a $100 fine. She had her dog on a leash starving to death. It had pine needles in its stomach." Although I'm not a dog person, I decide to sleep with a dog my last night at the camp. I pick a gentle, heartworm-afflicted pit bull named Pumpkinhead.
Wednesday, 2 p.m.: Good-byes
I finally get around to offering up my bag of Fool goodies to the volunteers who never seem to be in the same room at the same time. The baseball caps that simply say "Fool" go first. I am given my Camp Katrina Volunteer shirt. When Jeff gets back from a meeting with the local sheriff, I organize a group photo. There are eight of us total, and four of us are leaving today. I wonder how the other four will be able to walk all those dogs and care for all those cats after we leave. I hope other volunteers will arrive soon.
I have an hour before Jeff drives me back to New Orleans. I take Pumpkinhead for a walk to the back of the property, where the emptied kennels of adopted or reunited animals have been tossed in a field. Then I say good-bye to all the cats I've come to know by meow and personality. I hold Zoe one last time and whisper to her that I'll try to get someone I know in Washington to adopt her so we can see each other again (I already have my landlord's limit of two).
In the van on the way back, Jeff tells me Sean and I did a truly amazing job making the cat room clean, comfortable, and organized. He said the most important thing I did was just spending time with the animals. He told me to keep in touch, and I went into the airport proud of the paw prints all over my clothes. Hi, Jeff.
It's now been one week to the day since my return from Camp Katrina. My hands and forearms are still covered in cat scratches. I will miss them when they finally disappear.
To give to the Humane Society of Louisiana via Foolanthropy, click here .
Fool editor Carrie Crockett is co-chair of Foolanthropy 2005, along with David Gardner.