Dogged determination

In the six years since hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept people and pets from their homes, animal welfare in Louisiana has undergone a stunning evolution.

The storms smashed antiquated shelters and exposed the harsh realities of life for many Louisiana pets—both owned and homeless. From the time rescuers began pulling disoriented, dehydrated, exhausted pets from floodwaters and deserted homes, Baton Rouge was awash in a sea of animals in shelters that stretched from Lamar-Dixon in Gonzales to LSU’s AgCenter to Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson.

The condition of the animals was as appalling as the volume. A tremendous influx of ASPCA, Humane Society of the United States and other national rescue staff and volunteers triaged and treated injuries for everything from dog-fighting, chronic disease, long-term abuse and neglect to recent trauma, and they transported animals all over the country for adoption.

By the time the “temporary” shelters were shuttered more than a year later, a national no-kill movement was catching on. Soon, local animal lovers were no longer content to accept high euthanasia rates, poor shelter conditions or old excuses blaming the problems on too many unwanted animals, too few homes and too few dollars in municipal budgets.

The 10 people you’re about to meet demanded immediate change. And when meaningful improvements didn’t happen, they implemented their own ideas to improve animal welfare.

Cathy Wells

Senior researcher for the Department of Environmental Quality, animal rescue pioneer

Since she came to the Capital City 30 years ago, Cathy Wells (right) has been a leader in animal rescue. In 2006, she drafted the nation’s first pet evacuation bill, which makes the state responsible for the humane evacuation and sheltering of household pets during disasters. While she volunteers with several rescues, Wells relentlessly pursues national and local resources to improve the lives of pets and their owners. Recently, Wells leveraged her contacts to provide free spay/neuter and vaccinations for all of Sonya Cockran’s (left) nine dogs, transported the pack to the vet herself and arranged for a North Carolina-based non-profit to build a fence, so the dogs could have the run of the backyard rather than remain on chains.

Wendy Wolfson

Veterinarian, shelter medicine expert

After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the LaSPCA shelter where she had worked for 21 years, veterinarian Wendy Wolfson (left) became the first director of LSU’s Shelter Medicine program. Besides preparing the next generation of vets to care for homeless pets, Wolfson’s service provides medical care for animals at municipal shelters in 18 parishes unable to afford a staff veterinarian. Like this hound puppy examined by Wolfson and fourth-year student Erica Pennington at Dixon Correctional Institute’s Pen Pals clinic, shelter pets who receive preventive care remain healthier and are adopted faster than those without health clearance. Only one of eight shelter medicine programs in the country, LSU has recently received a $200,000 grant to extend coverage to shelters in central and north Louisiana.

Marianne Fairchild

Veterinarian, savior to Baton Rouge’s forsaken animals

For the past 11 years, this “part-time” Animal Control employee has devoted 24 hours a day, seven days a week to the hardest veterinary job in the city. Even without benefit of the patient’s health history or sophisticated diagnostics, Fairchild has rendered quality, compassionate care for thousands of sick and wounded shelter animals. Each year, she performs 1,500 spay/neuter surgeries and other procedures on animals adopted directly from the facility, and she still makes time to acclimate third- and fourth-year vet students to the realities of practicing shelter medicine during their clinical rotations.

Paula Schoen

Speech and language pathologist, advocate for the forgotten

There was a time when the hundreds of shelter-bound animals had no real allies—until Schoen created Friends of the Animals. Since 2009, a growing corps of volunteers has arrived daily to exercise, engage and improve the life of animals awaiting reclamation by an owner, adoption, rescue or even euthanasia. In the course of promoting humane treatment, FOTA has enhanced the kennels with ceiling fans, elevated dog beds with fleece covers and a $20,000 temporary building for use as a veterinary clinic. By encouraging families to become weekend or holiday fosters and hosting offsite adoption events, the non-profit has placed 150 dogs with their forever families.

Mark Mese & Judy Atkinson

Attorneys, animal food bank founders

As members of a loosely configured group of Garden District rescuers, Mark Mese and Judy Atkinson know firsthand that small rescues have a hard time competing with larger organizations for grants, but an even harder time turning away from animals in need. So, when they heard a Louisiana native had established a Houston-based pet food bank, they eagerly offered to open a Baton Rouge affiliate. Since 2010, Rescue Bank of Baton Rouge has distributed more than 200,000 pounds of food and other supplies to its 30 member rescues. Rescue Bank’s donation of 1,500 pounds of pet food enables Northside Humane Society to allocate a greater portion of its budget to medical care and other essentials for the 200 animals it rescues annually, without compromising its ability to feed feral cat colonies.

Carolyn Martin

CEO of Commercial Properties


Michael Hackett

Petz Plaza Owner

Defenders of doomed dogs

In 2009, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation convened a meeting of animal advocates to examine the cause of the city’s high euthanasia rate and to develop No Kill BR, a citywide initiative to ensure no healthy, adoptable animal is euthanized. Even before a comprehensive agenda could be drafted, Martin (left) and Hackett (center) decided to take immediate action and showcase shelter dogs at shopping centers to make them more accessible to potential adopters. In Spring 2011, the nonprofit opened Yelp! House, an adoption center that can accommodate 50 dogs. With the help of Joey Lambert (right) and other volunteers, Yelp!BR has saved more than 950 puppies and dogs like Dobby (pictured) from being euthanized.

Peggy Polk

Physician, friend of the felines

For years, entering East Baton Rouge Animal Control was practically a death sentence for cats; nearly 90% were euthanized. In 2010, those odds changed for 1,000 homeless cats and kittens when Peggy Polk founded Project Purr Baton Rouge. By building a base of 200 volunteers and running a minimum of 10 weekly adoption events in high visibility locations such as this donated booth at the Mall of the Louisiana, Project Purr has placed more than 800 cats and kittens in qualified, permanent homes. To decrease the percentage of the city’s 60,000 feral cats frequently impounded as nuisance animals, Project Purr has trapped, neutered and released 1,050 felines, preventing the birth of 105,000 stray cats.

Sandra DiTusa

Microbiologist, disaster averter

Sandra DiTusa believes the best strategy to halt the proliferation of homeless and unwanted pets is to attack the problem at its source. For the past six years, Spay Baton Rouge has made spay/neuter services affordable and accessible to all East Baton Rouge Parish pet owners, including low-income families and caretakers of feral cat colonies. Azalea Lakes Veterinary Clinic (shown here) and a network of local vets around the city host Spay Days specifically for Spay Baton Rouge’s pre-qualified clients. By decreasing uncontrolled breeding, the program reduces the number of homeless animals, the city’s euthanasia rate and the incidence of pet starvation, disease, abuse and neglect. This fall, Spay Baton Rouge is on track to sterilize its 10,000th animal, thus preventing nearly 1.25 million unwanted births in the first three generations alone.