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Pet Owners in Gulf Turn to Shelters

Lena Nguyen picked up free food for her dog, Keno, from the Louisiana S.P.C.A. through Catholic Charities in Port Sulphur.

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Steve Satushek | Iconica | Getty Images

Here, the outcry over the spill—barking, whimpering and mewing—amounts to little more than muted protest.

Since the BPoil disasterbegan, overwhelmed pet owners in coastal parishes, notably St. Bernard, and to a lesser degree, Plaquemines, have been dropping off their pets in droves. Some hand them over tearfully, others matter of factly.

“I think about how one day these animals are happy and go to sleep, and then the next day they wake up in a cage wondering, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ” said Mary Gambill, 54, of Luling, La., who drove an hour south to St. Bernard to adopt Andrea, a yellow Lab whose ribs poked through her sickly coat.

“These aren’t just scroungy dogs on the side of the road,” Gambill said. “These are pets.”

Some owners told the shelter’s director, Beth Brewster, that they had to downsize to apartments that do not accept animals. Others said they were too busy cleaning the spill to properly care for them. Few people, however, are willing to admit that they cannot feed both family and pet.

“I think it’s the uncertainty of the future,” Brewster said. “It’s more logistics than it is poverty.”

In a proud parish where three dollar stores operate between shopping centers shuttered five years after Katrina, and where residents wait six hours for $100 food cards distributed weekly by Catholic Charities, the animal shelter’s statistics reflect the jarring anxiety of the oil-ravaged economy.

"In June 2009, owners brought 17 pets in to the shelter; last month, owners relinquished more than 100 pets."

In June 2009, owners brought 17 pets in to the shelter; last month, owners relinquished more than 100 pets, Brewster said. To make room in the kennels, the sickest animals and those most unlikely to be adopted—primarily feral cats and aggressive dogs—have been euthanized, she said.

The situation is different than after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when owners abandoned their pets in haste, and later out of necessity when they themselves had no homes. Then, overcrowded shelters focused on rescue and reunion missions.

Now agencies like theLouisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animalsand the Humane Society of the United States are trying to ease the overcrowding by arranging adoptions with shelters throughout the country and by offering free veterinary services and pet food so owners can keep their pets.

“Once they get through our door, they’ve already gone through the emotions of grief in giving up their pet,” said Jacob Stroman, director for the Plaquemines Animal Welfare Society, which has a policy of noneuthanization.

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The mission, he said, is to reach owners before they turn to shelters as a last resort.

At St. Bernard Catholic Church on Tuesday, Thomas Lopez, 65, and his companion, Vera Kerschner, 48, carried away a 17.6-pound bag of Kibbles ’n Bits for their Chihuahua, Shelby.

“She’s eating better than we are,” Lopez, an unemployed fisherman, said with a laugh.

The couple was taking advantage of the Louisiana S.P.C.A.’s Gulf Coast Companion Animal Relief Program, which in its first week gave out 377 bags of dog food to owners who could prove a connection to the fishing industry, said Ana Zorrilla, the group’s chief executive.

The program received a $100,000 grant from the A.S.P.C.A. and approximately $100,000 in private donations, while Del Monte donated 41,000 pounds of dog food.

On Thursday, Catholic Charities’ distribution day in Plaquemines Parish, James Bennett, 43, a commercial fisherman now mowing lawns, signed up for veterinary services offered by the S.P.C.A. in New Orleans.

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Steve Satushek | Iconica | Getty Images

He will bring his whole brood—six cats and seven dogs—the 75 miles north from Venice, La., for their appointments next month. Bennett, who said he easily spends $350 a month on pet food, wonders, however, whether the oil spill has given owners a convenient excuse.

“I don’t buy that—they’re giving up their dogs because they can’t feed them?” Bennett said at St. Patrick Church in Port Sulphur, La. “I just think they are trying to get rid of them.”

Billy Nungesser, the outspoken president of Plaquemines Parish who owns seven dogs, including one he rescued from Katrina, instituted a parish pet food giveaway every two weeks.

“With all the stress and frustration and worrying about getting your job back, that pet keeps you sane and can help you get through that,” Nungesser said in an interview.

Nonetheless, he said some owners had confided in him that they have had “to choose between their kids and their pets.”

For Lena Nguyen, holding her 14-year-old husky-shepherd mix, Keno, by the leash, there is no choice.

“I’m broke,” Nguyen said at St. Patrick Church on Wednesday, “but if you give me $100,000, a million dollars, and tell me to trade Keno, thank you very much, I’ll be poor, but I’ll be happy.

“Keno is my heart, my everything.”

In the beginning of the disaster, animal shelter directors along the coast gathered in Port Sulphur for BP training on how to treat oily birds; no one expected cats and dogs to feel the brunt of the spill, too.

Brewster and Stroman, the shelter directors, have been encouraged by the response to the plight. One California woman last week mailed six cans of cat food to Stroman’s shelter.

A couple from Hopedale (they declined to give their name) were delighted to adopt two azure-eyed Siamese kittens at St. Bernard. The woman, who said she had just been diagnosed with lymphoma, wanted company while her husband was out skimming oil for BP.

The St. Bernard shelter had a temporary reprieve this week after 30 small- and medium-size dogs were taken to be transported to a shelter in Houston on Friday. Another five dogs, including Sasha, a retriever mix, were flown to a shelter in Lakeland, Fla., also on Friday.

The uglier, larger or heartworm-positive dogs, like the Labrador brothers, Rock and Rocker, were left behind. Again.