GONZALES, LA. — Scott Jetter leaned his slight frame against the cage of the animal control truck. Inside was what looked and sounded like a growling mass of matted hair - actually a springer spaniel just rescued from five weeks on his own in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Like thousands of pets abandoned in the flooded city, the dog needed help from veterinarians at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center here in Gonzales, La. But his recent experiences had kicked his fight instinct into high gear.
Mr. Jetter poked a single finger through the cage to make contact with the tip of a crusty paw. As the dog calmed, Jetter stroked the top of the canine's leg. After five minutes, the snarl started to fade, and it was time to get the dog out of the cage and to care for it. The the fear in the dog's eyes was replaced by acceptance as Jetter petted his back and let him sniff his hand, slowly reconnecting him with man.
"You can't jump to a conclusion about what a dog is like when you see it in the crate," he said as the springer joined the more than 6,000 rescued animals helped at the emergency shelter set up in the wake of the hurricane by the Louisiana SPCA and the state's Department of Agriculture.
The expo center is much like a fairgrounds, with barns, outdoor arenas, and enclosed exhibit buildings. Over the course of six weeks, it housed all kinds of animals - from nearly 350 horses to pet ferrets.
When animals arrived at the facility, they were photographed and had their information recorded. Then they were given veterinary care, if needed, as well as food and water, before being assigned to a "home" on the grounds.
Hundreds of volunteers came from across the US to help rescue and care for animals left on their own along the Gulf Coast. Each day this army of volunteers gave food and water to the animals, and cleaned their kennels.
The dogs were walked daily, often creating "traffic jams" in the barn corridors as the canines and their helpers strolled to and from the outdoors.
Jetter, an animal- behavior specialist from Des Moines, Iowa, took on the task of calming the most aggressive dogs. When Jetter first arrived at the Louisiana facility, he made his way to the triage area, where dogs were treated as they were brought in. Many of the dogs had experienced trauma and were extremely aggressive as a result. That made them potentially dangerous, since if they bit volunteers, they could be branded as unadoptable.
But Jetter knew he could soothe the dogs, and so he stepped in to help.
"At first, I worked with a few dogs, and within a few hours they called on me for all of the dogs coming off the trucks," he said. "I have the satisfaction of knowing how many lives we were able to save by being able to work with them in desensitizing and calming them."
One day earlier this month, as vets looked over the stragglers still being brought into the shelter, Jetter settled onto the pavement under a darkening October sky. A pit bull puppy leaped into his lap, and they played.
The puppy was a nipping, yelping, rolling bundle of energy that brought a smile to the faces of Jetter and the exhausted volunteers. "This is my little ball of sanity," he said.
Many dogs rescued from New Orleans floodwaters are still looking for a home, but this young pit bull won't be one of them.
When Jetter left Louisiana Oct. 15, after the volunteers had cleaned up the site, he departed for Iowa with his "sanity" intact: The 10-week-old puppy was by his side.
• Of the more than 6,000 dogs, cats, and other animals that passed through the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center complex during the weeks following the hurricane, 500 were reunited with their owners at the site. On Oct. 10, the facility shipped out the last of its rescued animals to other animal shelters across America. The Humane Society of the US is encouraging those shelters to hold the animals until Dec. 15, to give owners plenty of time to find their pets. After that time, the animals may be released for adoption.