They were once members of the family. But now thousands of pets rescued from this year's hurricanes are orphans looking for homes.
This month California animal rescuer Pia Salk of 1-800-Save-A-Pet.com flew to Houston to reunite a cat named Kitty with her owner, Roxanne Dorsey, and her family. Dorsey hadn't seen Kitty for four months.
Kitty and thousands of other pets were separated from their owners after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast this summer. In the storm's aftermath, pets were everywhere, running loose, tied to porches, stranded in trees and on top of roofs, where owners had left them in the hope that they'd be protected from the rising water.
Most people rescued by police were not allowed to take their pets with them. Rescuers were instructed: Take no pets.
A Small Way of Helping the Hurricane Victims
So volunteers like Ramsey Skipper stepped up to help out. Skipper borrowed a boat and used it to help pet owners like Gus Christakis get back to his flooded home to rescue his cats. Two of his three cats survived the storm.
The ASPCA and other groups say they rescued about 15,000 pets. But many of the scared and hungry pets hid from rescuers; others fought attempts to save them. It's estimated that some 40,000 animals were lost.
All around the disaster areas, rescue groups set up makeshift shelters, which were soon overwhelmed with animals.
Veterinarian Eve Ognibene, medical director of North Shore Animal League America, in Port Washington, N.Y., flew to the Gulf Coast and evacuated hundreds of animals by plane. She also sent a bus to Gulfport, Miss., to pick up animals from a shelter that was partly underwater.
North Shore kennel associate Jen Lewis described the scene. "Half the shelter survived. Half the shelter was underwater and unfortunately those that were in the bottom cages weren't able to survive. And they were swimming around for five to six hours. It was just horrible," Lewis said.
Before shipping the animals to shelters as far away as California, the staff photographed them, and posted their pictures on the Web site Petfinder.com, hoping owners would eventually come forward.
That's how Dorsey found Kitty, and hundreds of others are still tracking down their pets this Christmas season. But thousands of pets, whose owners cannot be located, are waiting for new homes.
"It's the holiday season. We have plenty of animals for adoption, including the hurricane animals. They're finally treated for everything that they came up with, so we want people to know that they're available," said Ognibene.
Some people are taking animals because they're hurricane survivors.
Diane McCabe, who adopted a dog, said her pet "represents what happened there and, you know, that things have to continue to go on and repair themselves and this is a repair."
"I wasn't able to do much for the people there but at least doing something for the animals, you know makes me feel good. It's Christmas too," said Charmaine Rose.
"Somewhere out there, there's her owner. Maybe they died, you know, maybe they can't take the dog because they have no place to live and she has a good home now," said Jennifer Beauchamp, who went to the shelter for a puppy, but ended up adopting an older dog.
If you want to open your home to a dog or a cat this Christmas or in the new year, they're available at shelters across America now.
How You Can Adopt a Pet
The following groups have information on pet rescues and adoptions:
AMERICAN HUMANE ASSOCIATION
THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS
ANIMAL REFUGE FOUNDATION
ANIMAL RESCUE NEW ORLEANS
BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY
THE HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE UNITED STATES
INTERNATIONAL FUND FOR ANIMAL WELFARE
LOUISIANA SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS
NORTH SHORE ANIMAL LEAGUE AMERICA