Heartache, rewards for animal rescue volunteer

Williston woman travels to Gulf Coast to help animals

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

As Cindi Hines watched frequent television images of Hurricane Katrina evacuees being forced to abandon their pets in September, she felt compelled to do something.

It was no longer enough that she and her husband had donated money after the storm to assist those affected by the hurricane, which hit Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29. Nor was it enough that Hines had volunteered at Vermont Public Radio during their one-day fund-raising drive for Red Cross assistance to affected areas.

“It just kept going on and on and on,” Hines said of the television images, “until I said to (my husband) one day ‘I have to do something more.’”

Hines researched options on the Internet until she found Noah’s Wish, a nonprofit with the sole mission of keeping animals alive during disasters. From Oct. 12–22, she volunteered with the organization at its temporary animal shelter in Slidell, La., about 30 miles northeast of New Orleans.

“My pets are part of my family,” said Hines after returning last week. Hines and her husband, who have lived in Williston for five years, own two Samoyeds, or sled dogs. “I would want someone to look after my guys if something were to happen to me,” she said.

Hines alternately worked at the shelter’s front gate and served on a team that walked dogs and cleaned cages in temperatures that reached 95 degrees in the shade. From 8 a.m.-noon and 3:30-8 p.m. the team attended to the same dogs, ensuring that each dog was walked and had its cage cleaned twice daily. On one day, 586 dogs required attendance.

Hines had scarcely arrived in Louisiana when she realized how slowly the storm clean-up was proceeding, even eight weeks after Katrina hit.

“I called (my husband) in tears almost every night saying ‘I cannot believe the devastation down here,’” Hines said. “People are just returning to their homes now, and finding nothing. It’s dried out now, but their homes are destroyed.”

The Slidell animal shelter continues to take in pets temporarily for returning owners looking for places to live. However, more than 700 of the shelter’s 1,000 animals have not been identified by an owner. Since Hurricane Katrina, Noah’s Wish has cared for more than 1,700 animals in Slidell and St. Tammany parish. Fortunately they did not need to evacuate for Hurricane Rita, which made landfall Sept. 24.

Hines found some happy stories while working the front gate.

One woman, a teacher, told Hines that her neighbor had been to the shelter the day before and thought she’d seen the teacher’s dogs.

When the teacher found her dogs, “she was ecstatic,” said Hines, and the woman’s elementary school-aged children screamed. “The dogs were in the car and the kids were hanging off the dogs,” Hines said. As of mid-October, the organization had reunited 384 owners with their pets.

Some of the assistance Noah’s Wish provided was less dramatic, but noteworthy for Hines. One woman who stopped at the gate had run out of dog food, so Noah’s Wish gave her a supply.

“I had one woman cry in my arms,” Hines said, because the shelter gave the woman cat litter. “They had nothing. Their checks hadn’t come through. They were just waiting.”

Hines acknowledges that it took several weeks to make the decision to go to Louisiana because of fear of the unknown. She had never volunteered with an animal organization, much less after a natural disaster.

“When I got there, I realized I was really meant to go,” Hines said. “Even though I wasn’t a trained volunteer, I did manage to help.”

Hines would have stayed longer if she could, but her husband, her dogs and her job as a process engineer at IBM awaited her return. She does plan, however, to attend a formal training program with Noah’s Wish so that she can assist in future disasters.

Hines said that even without training, it is possible to make a difference in one “little area.” She encourages other Williston residents who have considered volunteering in the Gulf Coast to go.

“If they think they might want to, but they’re a little bit afraid or something, they should go with their instinct that says to go,” said Hines.