A group of New Orleans animal shelters has organized an emergency rescue effort to save hundreds of Gulf Coast dogs from being destroyed by transporting them to other shelters around the country.
Gulf Coast animal shelters have grown overcrowded with the dogs and cats of out-of-work fishermen who can no longer afford to keep them, and nearly 200 have been euthanized in recent weeks.
Time was running out for many of the dogs, as shelter operators would be forced to euthanize more of them to make space for the ongoing deluge of abandoned animals.
Beth Brewster, director of St. Bernard Parish Animal Services, said she had seen unprecedented numbers of animals coming into her shelters. Her animal shelter brought in 288 dogs and cats in May, up from 60 in May 2009, and brought in 25 new animals in a single day last week.
"I don't have an empty kennel right now, anywhere," Brewster said, explaining that the 203 animals she had currently outstripped the shelter's capacity of 98.
"We have them doubled and tripled to not have to euthanize."
The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been looking for creative solutions to the overcrowding problem.
"We've been contacting shelters throughout the country ... to see if anyone would be open to accepting some of these animals because of the large number of turn-ins," Louisiana SPCA communications director Katherine LeBlanc told ABCNews.com.
It has found shelters in Houston and Lakeland, Florida, which are willing to accept some of the animals.
LeBlanc said the society would send 30 dogs to Houston and 20 to 30 to Lakeland. It hopes to send another 20 dogs to a shelter in New York next week, and 60 more dogs to Houston the week after that.
"What these transports are going to do is they're really going to allow us to save more lives," LeBlanc said.
The dogs will be transported in air-conditioned trucks that LeBlanc called "moving kennels." The society researched the transportation companies and the receiving shelters to ensure they met health and safety standards.
"[The animals] are very well taken care of during the process," she said.
LeBlanc said the increase in shelter animals is seasonal but is of a different nature this summer.
"They've seen an increase of not only animals which we see every summer, but owner-relinquished animals," LeBlanc said.
The St. Bernard's Parish shelter has noticed a wider variety of breeds. Usually it takes in pitbulls and Lab-mixes, but now the shelter sees such pure breeds as Shih Tzus and Chihuahuas. "We're getting in these gorgeous dogs," Brewster said.
Adoptions are down, however, which forces Brewster to make more difficult choices.
When asked about how many animals she had been forced to kill, Brewster responded by saying, "Do the math. When you take in eight and adopt out one ..."
The shelter took in 270 animals in June. Among them, 38 were adopted, 33 were transferred and 179 were destroyed.
LeBlanc said the oil spill, which started April 21, is to blame.
"It's those fishermen that are out of work," she said. "They can't go out and fish, they can't go out and collect the oil."
Pets Are an Unjustifiable Luxury
Without a steady wage, they are forced to move to smaller homes and apartments, which often do not allow pets, she said. In many cases, the food and veterinary costs for a pet suddenly become prohibitive.
In response, the Louisiana SPCA has launched the Gulf Coast Animal Companion Relief Program, which is designed to help fishermen and others affected by the spill get free food and veterinary care so they can keep their animals.
The service includes free veterinary exams, free vaccines, tests for feline leukemia and heartworms in dogs, and spay and neuter surgery. Pet owners can also receive three months of free food through the program.
The project has been supported by a $100,000 grant from the national SPCA and other support from the PetCo Foundation and Del Monte, which makes dog food.
LeBlanc said the response has been tremendous since they introduced the program last Monday. They have already booked two weeks of veterinary appointments.
Sharron Gonzales of Westwego, Louisiana, who is one of the beneficiaries of the program and owns two dogs and a cat, said her husband, a fencer, recently had to take a pay cut because work had come to a standstill. The cost to get her American Old English pitbull spayed and neutered would have been in the hundreds of dollars, and vaccines for her bulldog puppy would have added to that total.
"We can't afford their shots," she said. "They wouldn't have gotten fixed.
"We have to pay bills. We have to eat."
Now both of her dogs will be spayed and neutered and will receive their vaccinations. Had the program not existed, Gonzales said she probably would have been forced to give up her puppy.
She and her husband are appreciative of the program. "It's letting us keep and take care of our animals," Gonzales said.
While the Louisiana's SPCA's initiative will help with the problem, LeBlanc predicts it will only get worse.
"A reality of that issue is our shelters run out of space within a matter of days and weeks," she said, "and these animals don't have a chance even to be seen."
The combination of the local initiative and transporting the animals should help alleviate the problem.
"Because we're able to make more space, we are able to save more lives."