A New Leash on Life

It was like a Hollywood premiere.

A crowd complete with cameras heard the featured guests before they saw them. What looked like a horse trailer rolled up, and its back doors swung open. All eyes eagerly shifted downward, and the stars paraded out one at a time -- the 51 hounds from Houston.

Those who attended say that as soon as paws hit grass, a blur of volunteers, staff and news teams scrambled around frantically, scooping up poop, snapping photos, hosing down what were hot dogs warmed by the long trek from Texas.

Marin County, that exclusive Northern California enclave better known for quiche and canapés, has turned into the swanky new home for the unlikeliest of flood refugees: critters who had gone unadopted in Houston for a long period before the flood. The Marin facility in Novato welcomed the exiles to help the overburdened Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals free shelter space for hundreds of new animals displaced by Tropical Storm Allison.

As the rain poured down, the Houston shelter had opened its doors to a variety of refugees. The HSPCA had to bring in its own livestock, and it accepted animals rounded up by residents. Fourteen three-member rescue teams of the organization went from one rooftop to another to round up lost or stranded pets.

Coupled with that were the HSPCA Mobile Animal Shelters -- MASh units -- set up outside three Red Cross relief stations. These tents allowed stranded families to stay near their animals. And the organization also checked in other animals for temporary stays while their owners themselves recovered from the disaster.

By the end of that week, the state-of-the-art shelter resembled a biblical ark. Designed to hold 540 critters, it was bulging with 934.

As the number of animals climbed, shelter workers put up temporary kennels in surgery rooms, staff offices and storage facilities. Officials say the HSPCA does not turn away any animal, but room for new arrivals was virtually exhausted.

The shelter had earlier helped humane organizations in other areas when they were hit by natural disasters, but Allison forced it for the first time to transfer out animals. They made arrangements with three of the highest-volume adoption shelters in the nation: the Denver Dumb Friends League, and the Humane Society shelters in Marin and Atlanta.

United Airlines helped the HSPCA fly 40 dogs and 20 cats to new homes at the Denver shelter. Ten more pets were driven to a rendezvous point in Mississippi, where the Atlanta Humane Society took over the transportation chores.

However, the Marin trek was by far the most ambitious. The Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio provided two staffers to help with its "Humane Train," an air- conditioned trailer with secure kennels, hay, food and water. HSPCA network manager David Dubec led the two-day expedition, which had to pull over every three hours to feed, water and walk the dogs, one by one. Motorists in Arizona were amazed to see the endless entourage of critters make their predawn pit stops at an interstate rest area.

Inconveniences paled compared to the Bay Area reception. Advance publicity had already filled the Marin Humane Society's mailbox with applications for adoption.

"We are really excited to be able to help somebody in an entirely different state," says Marin spokesperson Marissa Miller. "The dogs are really sweet and cute. They'll fit right into the families and the lifestyle here."

Stacey Wilbanks, community outreach manager of the HSPCA, marveled at mutts dropped into likely yaps of luxury. "These animals have basically been given the golden path to a new life," he says.

The combined relocation program cost the HSPCA about $30,000, but Wilbanks says it was the best choice. "We could've done it, but we would have been setting up shelters outside in our pavilion. We just didn't want to get stretched to that limit."

Organization workers are somewhat baffled at still having nearly 875 unclaimed animals at the shelter, despite HSPCA efforts to reach their owners. "Maybe their lives are under so much distress that they feel as though their animals are not a priority, which is very sad," says HSPCA official Lisa Cherry. "And it's possible that some people don't know" about the HSPCA.

Some residents chained their animals to their cars and homes, leaving them to watch the water rise. In the future, Wilbanks wants to make sure people don't make the same mistakes. Pet owners should always make sure pets carry identification and have up-to-date vaccinations. Owners should also establish quick references to call for help.

Christy Check, public relations director of the Houston Humane Society, says it has been difficult knowing that information about flood precautions did not reach all residents. "Housing more animals was not a problem. But there was the thought of, 'Man, I failed,' because we couldn't educate everybody."

Drew O'Donnell figured he was one of those who had failed as well.

It was just after the storm when O'Donnell, a regional sales manager for a medical company, stepped into his west Houston home and noticed something right away.

Sumo, his 100-pound dark gray Akita, was nowhere to be found.

He may not have lost his house to the flood, but to him, losing his Akita, a Christmas gift from his wife seven and a half years earlier, was like losing a family member. O'Donnell theorized that the pet, frightened by thunder and lightning during Allison, had pushed through the closed gate and wandered too far to find his way home. And O'Donnell had forgotten to put on the dog's ID collar.

For the next three agonizing days, O'Donnell spent five hours a day knocking door-to-door with pictures, calling shelters and veterinarians, checking with police. Then he went to the Houston SPCA. There, shaking a paw at his owner through a temporary kennel, was Sumo.

As O'Donnell recounts the earlier anguish, he whistles curtly and abruptly. "Sumo!" he whispers.

The dog's ears perk up at O'Donnell's call -- and even the edges of the animal's mouth curl up into what looks like a genuine smile.

The Akita missed out on the ride to Marin County. Maybe this dog will never be licking bits of Brie from the manicured hands of the Northern California chardonnay set. But Sumo is sure content to just be back from the flood, back home with his master.

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