BATON ROUGE, LA. — When the last of an estimated 2,000 displaced pets are finally reunited with owners or adopted from Louisiana State University
(LSU), Dr. Michael Groves will be signing off on this tab.
Veterinary medicine's response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita ranked at the top of this LSU dean's list. Dr. Michael Groves
reports that while the storms put financial pressure on the small veterinary school, DVMs stepped up in big ways.
While the battering and flooding from hurricanes Katrina and Rita have been dubbed the most costly in U.S. history, the price
tag to the veterinary school, nestled two hours northwest of the serious Katrina flooding, isn't trivial.
Excluding tons in supply donations, the bill to care for rescued pets likely will amount to about one-sixth of the $5.9-million
veterinary teaching hospital's annual operating budget — $800,000, without tip.
The gratuity is more likely calculated in the vast experience LSU officials learned from this disaster, and the tireless
efforts of professors, staff and volunteer veterinarians in helping these animals, Groves smiles. He and LSU colleagues plan
to share their experiences in an effort to better prepare for natural disasters.
In an exclusive interview with DVM Newsmagazine, Groves talked about the successes and challenges posed by these hurricanes as well as the unanticipated role a small veterinary
school would play in the rescue and recovery of animals following a forced evacuation under an international microscope.
"I think our government needs to realize that there are twice as many households with pets as there are children," Groves
says. "I have been told that a child is more likely to have a pet than a father living at home. People would refuse to leave
their homes, and some died in refusing to leave their pets. If the government was going to get one message from the veterinary
community, then it's people should be allowed to bring their pets with them if safe. It is not right to make people abandon
their pets," Groves says.
As the radar images of Katrina lit up national newscasts in late August, it wasn't enough to foreshadow the flooding catastrophe
yet to unfold.
"No one ever told a veterinary school that you would ever have to do something like this," he explains. "We are not an animal
shelter. If you were to walk up to a major human hospital in a metropolitan area and say we are going to bring you a bunch
of refugees and we are not going to give you any money, and you are going to have to deal with volunteers and anything you
have out of your own pocket, well, it would be horrifying."
In the initial stages of the recovery, LSU veterinarians Drs. David Senior and Becky Adcock, and area DVMs Patrick Thistlethwaite
and Paula Drone, walked over to a donated LSU Agcenter's Parker Coliseum with a table, an empty building and a plan. The end
result turned into the largest makeshift animal shelter in history.
Two days after the storm, 500 animals unloaded at LSU. On Sept. 12, the steady influx of displaced pets peaked at 1,287 animals.
The university's numbers would ebb and flow and slowly recede as pets were either reunited or adopted out. The shelter was
slated to close on Oct. 15.
"We were overwhelmed," Groves recalls. "All the staff and faculty stepped up big time. They were working 12 or more hours,
seven days a week," he says.
"You get exposed to the human misery and the horrible conditions that happened to people's pets. You see the misery of the
people and misery of the animals. The upside is the outpouring of kindness and generosity that I have witnessed by the veterinary
profession, and I mean veterinarians and veterinary technicians and those working in veterinary practices."