NEW ORLEANS — For seven days, Nancy Stein circled a locked-down New Orleans, looking for a boat, a canoe, anything, she could use to rescue those who had been left behind on Fontainebleau Street.
As helicopters plucked people from rooftops, she waited for her chance. When it came, she barely made it back before dark along flooded streets. But in a cage in the bottom of a commandeered boat, she had her quarry: her cat, Dash.
"You can't stop a mother looking for her babies," a relieved Ms. Stein says.
The plight of human beings took precedence in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Yet as airlift lines shortened and rescue boats came back empty, a shift occurred. Rescuers began taking notice of the many left-behind dogs, birds, pigs, mules, and chinchillas in a city where 69 percent of households have pets.
By Tuesday, it had become the largest pet-rescue operation in the short history of such efforts, which date back to hurricane Andrew in 1992. As dozens of humane agencies descended, even soldiers turned at least a passing notice to lost, displaced, and left-behind pets. Two shelters - one for dropped-off pets at the Coliseum in Baton Rouge and another for rescued ones in Gonzales, La. - held more than 1,000 animals. More flowed in by the minute. Ninety percent of the rescued animals belong to someone.
Since human shelters won't take pets and it's illegal to keep pets in motels in Louisiana, many residents left their pets behind. Some left doors open so pets could fend for themselves. Others showed solidarity with their animals.
"There are a lot of people who wouldn't leave without their pets, so this has become a human safety issue, too," says Renee Bafalis, a United States Humane Society spokeswoman.
Pets who were left behind - thousands of them - seemed to stare morosely from front porches or roam bewildered through soggy streets.
Before the official animal rescue began, residents had already reacted to images of displaced animals. On a makeshift boat ramp a mile from where the 17th Canal Levee was breached, gregarious mutts Big Nasty, Hurricane, and Stinky were given care by a pair of homeless French Quarter mimes.
Troops began grabbing animals. National Guardsmen plucked two of Stein's cats - Cassis and Dot - from her house, though they hid that fact from their captain. By midweek, animals were being allowed onto helicopters airlifting the sick from the city.
Most of the animals "are in pretty good shape," says Ms. Bafalis at the Gonzales shelter. Mostly dehydrated, they're washed with a hose and given a clean cage. For the unclaimed, there's a 15-day wait before officials begin adoption procedures. Meanwhile, crates of food with well-wishing messages arrived on pallets from Massachusetts, Ohio, California, and Georgia.
"It's wonderful, y'all!" says Cathy West, a cat rescue worker from Lousiana.
Animal rescuers had permission to bust into homes, if needed, to grab forlorn pets.
A man Ms. West calls only "Mr. Muscles" returned to his house to find the front door broken open: "He told me, 'I knew it was either a break-in or the humane society.' "
Since nothing was stolen, his hopes rose. On Wednesday, he was reunited with his cat. The big bruiser of a man was in tears over finding his fluffball.