ARNO still saving animals six years after Katrina
It began in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as Animal Rescue New Orleans, but now it’s known to people in the business of saving animals as ARNO. I think of it as the little rescue that could, and still can.
ARNO operates out of what Charlotte Bass-Lilly calls a “homemade shelter” in the Elmwood Park area. It is a conglomeration of crates and exercise pens filled with adoptable dogs and cats, tail-wagging puppies and playful kittens. It is volunteers taking dogs for walks and cleaning out cat crates. It is sprinklers on the roof to keep the temperature down inside, and giant portable air coolers to lower the temperature of the outside areas. It is stacks of plastic bowls and 50-pound bags of feed.
“It’s not pretty, but it works,” Bass-Lilly, executive director of ARNO, says. “From their first day here, the dogs are wagging their tails and the cats are playing. Maybe it’s because they get attention from 9 to 9, or maybe it’s because they don’t smell death.”
The all-volunteer nonprofit group started renting their digs in 2006 as a place to store food for the thousands of homeless animals they were feeding. But the volunteers were also trapping animals for Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, which was operating out of Celebration Station. When the national group started pulling up stakes, they had no place to take the dogs and cats they were bringing in every day. So ARNO volunteers started gathering crates and pens and creating a makeshift shelter.
“This was never supposed to be forever,” Bass-Lilly says. “It was more like emergency triage care because that was all we could do.”
But sometimes things have a way of turning out the way they were meant to, and that’s what it feels like at ARNO.
For Jennifer Holden, who works at the shelter and also fosters puppy litters too young to be around other dogs, it’s the right place to be.
“I love animals, and ARNO is doing great, great things,” she says, planting a kiss on Freeway, a blind kitty rescued from the Interstate after somebody tossed her out of a car.
Just naming all the ARNO animals seems like a daunting task: Three little kittens are Mae West, Bette Davis and Charlie Chaplain. Four more are Oogie, Boogie, Woogie and Bugle. A half-grown Abyssianan kitten found starving outside a Nissan dealership is Dali Nissan; a sweet white cat is Gabrielle; two Lab-mix puppies are James Potter and Lilly Potter; a mother chow and her daughter are Mama and Fuzzy.
“We just brought those two in, and we’ve been feeding Mama since Katrina,” Bass-Lilly says. “There are plenty of dogs still out there.”
ARNO takes in feral dogs and “rehabs” them.
“Feral just means wild. It doesn’t mean aggressive,” she says. “We put them in with the domestic dogs, so they learn how to behave.”
Bass-Lilly’s role as “queen ant of the worker ants” seems tailor-made. She has been rescuing animals since 1979, starting with one block in the lower garden district.
“I got cats fixed,” she says. “I would catch them with a box and a string, like in “Our Gang” movies.
For years she worked behind the scenes, providing neighbors with heartworm and flea preventative; backing rescuers who had the heart to save animals, but not the resources; and organizing fund-raisers for rescue groups. She was one of the founders of Barkus, the annual canine Carnival parade through the French Quarter.
Two days after the levees broke, she made her way to Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, which had been set up as an emergency animal shelter.
“When I got there, Kathryn Destreza (who was chief humane officer for the LA/SPCA) was so happy to see me she picked me up and twirled me around,” Bass-Lilly says.
She would spend weeks driving back and forth from New Orleans with an animal control officer, rescuing animals from the flood waters and taking them to Lamar-Dixon.
“We saw so many problems and so much more death than you can ever imagine,” she says. “It was almost like you were in a movie.”
But in the midst of so much devastation, she also saw hope.
“You saw the most unselfish people you’ve ever seen in your life,” she says.
Because it was so hot, the volunteers set up “Operation Puppy Chow” in the fenced-in area at Pope Pius X Church. Instead of taking rescued animals to Lamar-Dixon during the day, they’d bring them there, and members of the military would look after them. Then they’d transport the animals in a big truck at night, when it was cooler.
“It was National Guard, Army, and the 92nd Airborne watching out for the animals,” Bass-Lilly says. “Some of them had just come from Afghanistan. It was amazing working with those guys.”
One day the commanding officer of the National Guard showed up and wanted Operation Puppy Chow shut down. But the Army chaplain made him change his mind.
“The chaplain said, ‘This is the only group of soldiers that doesn’t need psychiatric help,’ and the commanding officer said, ‘Well, damn, get us some more puppies,’” Bass-Lilly says.
What she likes to remember from those brutally hot and emotionally draining days is the remarkable team of volunteers she was part of and the network that stretched from southeast Louisiana around the country.
“I really believe God was protecting us all, but it was amazing what we were able to do,” she says.
That network of animal rescuers stayed connected after the storm. In 2008, when Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on Louisiana, volunteers from Pasado’s Safe Haven in Sultan, Wash., showed up at ARNO’s shelter to help evacuate 150 cats to a horse farm in Folsom and then stayed to take care of them.
Although the building survived, Gustav destroyed ARNO’s outside runs, the large tents and the back fence. Less than two weeks later, in the midst of cleaning up, Bass-Lilly was sending a truckload of pet food to her rescue buddies in Texas, who were suffering the wrath of Hurricane Ike.
“I have 20,000 rescue contacts,” she says. “Some of them are as old as I am.
Bass-Lilly, 61, says most nights she has trouble sleeping because there is so much to do and the needs of the rescued animals are so great. ARNO has evolved into the shelter that takes the ones nobody else wants: the cat left in the apartment when his owner moved out. The old retriever left homeless when her owner died. The pregnant beagle found in a Popeyes parking lot. The big, lumbering mutt who showed up at the LA/SPCA.
“That’s our niche,” she says. “Anything that’s treatable and manageable, we’ll do.”
Tiger, a laid-back buff-colored cat, came in with his shoulder split in half and the nerve exposed after being hit by a car. Now, it has been repaired and he has a titanium plate holding it together.
“A lot of people bring us animals who are injured because they have no place else to take them,” Bass-Lilly says.
ARNO works with several veterinarians and gets veterinary care at greatly reduced rates. The vet bill is anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 a month. The monthly rent is $2,200. Yearly expenses add up to $250,000 to $300,000.
“We get donations from all around the country, not a lot from here,” she says. “Some people have been following us since Katrina.”
Although it has had “a couple of rough years,” ARNO just keeps chugging along.
“We have 1,200 active volunteers,” Bass-Lilly says. “It’s perfect. There’s no competing for titles, no competing for jobs.”
One of ARNO’s youngest helpers is Cole Metzger, 13, of New Orleans.
“He’s been coming in to sweat with us, and he’s just been exceptional,” Bass-Lilly says.
Cole, who will leave for boarding school in September, was excited to be moved up from weekends, when there are lots of volunteers, to weekdays, when he has more to do.
“I just like getting to spend time with the animals,” he says.
Bass-Lilly’s philosophy is “There’s somebody for every animal,” and she and the other volunteers are meticulous in checking to make sure ARNO animals go to good homes. ARNO also has a program to help people struggling to take care of their pets.
“We help 60 indigent families. We give them food and pay medical expenses and teach them how to be responsible pet owners,” she says.
Sometimes, caring for four-legged creatures leads to caring for two-legged ones.
“We try to help somebody who needs help,” Bass-Lilly says.
A woman in the early stages of dementia called ARNO to say she was afraid her cat Stinky, her only companion, was dying of cancer. She was relieved to learn that Stinky had a fatty tumor, which ARNO got removed.
When Robert Cameron, the volunteer who worked with Ms. Catherine, realized she had nobody to help her, he started taking her to doctor’s visits. When he learned that her rent was taking her entire social security check, he convinced her landlord to lower it. And when the landlord called one day to say Ms. Catherine had died, ARNO agreed to take care of her funeral arrangements.
“When Robert went through her papers, he discovered she had a plot in Greenwood Cemetery and two sons she’d forgotten about,” Bass-Lilly says.
Cameron managed to track down her sons, who were from two different marriages and didn’t know each other. Both of them thought their mother had died in Katrina because they’d never been able to find her.
“They were so grateful to know someone had been taking care of her,” Bass-Lilly says. “They came and buried their mother, and they got to say goodbye.”
And Cameron still has Stinky.
“We’re just doing the work we should be doing,” Bass-Lilly says, “and I think we’re changing things little by little.”
Doing the work they should be doing includes finding loving homes for 8,700 pets since Hurricane Katrina.
“That’s not bad for a little old shelter,” she says. “Not bad for a little old rescue that didn’t think it would need a permanent shelter.”
Sheila Stroup's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Living. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 985.898.4831.
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BTW - this is where I got my little cutie, Mojo.