LIVINGSTON, La. (AP) — Two weeks ago, fast-rising floodwaters forced many south Louisiana homeowners to leave their beloved pets behind as they boarded rescue boats or waded through chest-deep water to reach dry ground.
Now many four-legged victims of the historic flooding are getting refuge at animal shelters near and wide — with a shot at being reunited with owners desperate to get them back.
The reunions, like one Friday at a shelter in Livingston, are emotional.
"We've cried a thousand tears of sadness and joy," said Bonnie Smith, 67, overjoyed as she was reunited Friday with a family cat named Betsy.
Smith found Betsy at an animal shelter in Livingston Parish, one of the areas hardest hit by last week's catastrophic flooding. Floodwaters rose here so fast in some places that pets and their owners were quickly separated.
"Some of these people left with even no shoes on. It was that fast and that bad," said Dr. Lesa Staubus, a staff veterinarian with the American Humane Association who drove from Oklahoma last Friday to help coordinate efforts at two Livingston Parish animal shelters.
Veterinarians and volunteers were caring for roughly 150 pets Friday at the shelters in the town of Livingston and in nearby Walker. Recently, they've helped reunite around 50 families with their cats or dogs.
Shelter workers post photographs of rescued pets on a Facebook page. Pets unclaimed 45 days after the flooding began will become candidates for adoption. And sheltered pets are given a temporary name — like Frank the beagle, Gracie Hope the Catahoula leopard hound mix and Layla the dachshund — and not just for record-keeping purposes.
"If a dog is just a number, it's hard to bond with them," Staubus explained.
They've also cared for a pig, chickens, a rabbit and ducks at the Livingston shelter, though dogs and cats are the norm.
Robin Pomes, a volunteer at the Livingston shelter, tried to comfort a shaking dog kept there since Aug. 18.
"She's scared to come out of the kennel," Pomes, 55, said of the 5-year-old hound mix.
Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said at least 3,300 pets were rescued — and likely many more that weren't reported.
Volunteers from the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine and an organization known as the Louisiana State Animal Response Team are caring for rescued pets at a Baton Rouge movie production studio and at convention centers in Baton Rouge and Gonzales. The Gonzales facility has been a shelter for cattle, horses and other livestock threatened by the flooding.
Outside the flood zone, others also helped.
Michelle Ingram owns a New Orleans pet boarding and grooming business that she uses to fund Zeus' Rescue, a nonprofit animal rescue operation. She and a crew of employees and volunteers have been part of the animal rescue effort since Aug. 13, when she headed for a shelter in badly flooded Denham Springs.
"We couldn't find a route in. I actually ended up taking in a yellow lab off of a sheriff's boat that they had just found swimming," she said.
At the Livingston shelter, Smith thanked volunteers for taking care of the cat that always slept by her mother-in-law's bed before the woman died in July at age 103. One of Smith's tenants rescued the cat from floodwaters but had to leave it at a shelter in a Denham Springs church when they were evacuated.
"They say she had a little scratch on her nose. That's nothing," Smith said. "We're just so pleased to have her back."
McGill reported from New Orleans.