Thibodaux church sheltering pets
An Animal Rights Article from


Millie Ball
September 2005

THIBODAUX - The young woman from New Orleans, her 7-year-old daughter and their pet poodle were sleeping under the altar at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center on the Nicholls State University campus.

The Rev. Jim Morris said he gazed down at the family that had been banned because of the dog from the regular shelter for victims of Hurricane Katrina. He told a colleague, "Our altar has never been adorned more beautifully than it is with these people seeking the sanctuary of God."

Morris has a dog named Blue. He understands.

"I went over to the school shelter Tuesday night and saw all these people outside, looking dejected and clinging to their animals," said the slender 44-year-old priest with friendly blue eyes and sandy hair he hasn't had time to comb lately. "They wouldn't let them inside. So I said, bring them on over to the church."

The first night there were 130 people with "all these rottweilers, poodles, Chihuahuas, cats, birds, even a pot-bellied pig. It was unbelievable. We had no kennels or cages - PetSmart and Petco donated them later - and people slept on the terrazzo floor and on the pews. We had no electricity. It was like Noah's Ark."

Sunday, there were 53 people still here with their pets. People chatted with one another, sitting on mattresses donated by locals, kennels holding their pets beside them. Volunteers and owners were returning with the leashed animals after their walks. One volunteer chased a Chihuahua that got lose. Others smiled since they'd been in that situation too, one time or another. Volunteers served burgers. So many donated clothes that were piled on long tables in the hall, it was hard to navigate through it.

"Some people say we're stupid because we wouldn't leave our animals," said Cora DeRussy. "It's why I'm in the predicament I am now, but I'm glad I'm stupid."

An employee at Dillard's in eastern New Orleans, she lived on Vicksburg Street in Lakeview, and watched from her perch in the kitchen sink while one of her dogs swam in the water dumped in her house from the broken canal, and eventually drowned. Wearing a donated blue muumuu Sunday, the 65-year-old DeRussy said when two men in a boat rescued her Tuesday afternoon, she got them to row around the house until she spotted Amber, her collie, its head poking out of a window.

Now Amber, who swallowed a lot of polluted water, is at Ridgefield Animal Hospital nearby, recovering from her ordeal. Dr. Paul Seemann Jr., a veterinarian, shook his head. There would be no bill for any of these refugees' pets - or almost anyone else from New Orleans last week.

Carole Montet is another of the many people here who are grateful for the Catholic Center. There was no way the recently retired special education teacher, her sister, Patricia, and their 80-year-old mother, Lillian, were going to leave their cat in the attic of their flooded house on 28th Street in Lakeview, a block from the 17th Street Canal.

McGinty, an orange tabby, was oblivious to the Montets' story as she slept curled up on a floral cushion in the cluttered office at the Catholic Center. Carole Montet, who said her brother in Mississippi had borrowed her car so they couldn't leave, looked through oversized tan-rim eye glasses and told how she punched out the ventilator in their roof of their one-story home to crawl out; how the two men who rescued them in a boat lifted her mother out, and then paddled them to the roof of a nearby two-story house - but the water went up 4 feet in 20 minutes. So they paddled the boat to another rooftop, and eventually reached a rescue point where Lillian lay in the sun for four hours until a bus arrived and took them to Thibodaux.

"Leave McGinty?" Carole Montet asked, as if that were a ridiculous question. "This cat helped my mother get through her hip surgery; McGinty inspired my mother."

"She's family," interjected Lillian Montet from her wheelchair where she said in the air-conditioning, wearing a black flowered dress, a green parka and a heavy knit, smoky blue sweater.

"It was terrible," said Patricia Montet, who's in her 30s. She lifted both hands to cover her brown eyes.

"Our animals are the only semblance of normalcy we have left," Carole Montet said. "You've lost your home. You've lost your job. You have no possessions."

"I didn't get my pictures or my albums," said her mother sadly. "The animal is the only semblance of your old life," Carole said.

Jack Weber, who lives on St. Denis Street near the Fair Grounds in Mid-City, got out with his family too. That includes his wife, Ollie, 56; their daughter, Tamara, 30; and their mixed dalmatian-retriever mix, Spartica. "That's my family."

Their roof blew off, then the sheetrock fell as the family moved from room to room "until there wasn't more room," said Weber, 58. A wiry man with a neat moustache and gray hair, he works as a bank messenger for the Board of Liquidation.

Then the ceiling fell down, and they managed to get in their little boat - avoiding five or six guys chasing them and trying to steal it - and took on a neighbor Leon Gomez, who's in a wheelchair, and Gomez' rottweiler, ODB.

After getting no help from a man in an official looking boat, another man paddled by in a child's inflatable plastic wading pool, and he told them to get to I-610, where they slept on the concrete until their rescue the next day by helicopter. Weber's wife and daughter got separated, but at least they know the others' locations.

Weber was smiling Sunday and wearing new pants, socks, a Pride of Arcadia T-shirt and his old shoes he said can walk over nails. He was on his way to Laredo, Texas, to join up with his family. He also wore a new wooden cross he picked up at the center. "I wear it for good luck," he said.

And he'll arrive with Spartica. Gomez still has his rottweiler, which Seemann said is one of the largest at the shelter, maybe 160 pounds.

Seemann, 48, who grew up in Metairie and went to John Curtis and St. John Lutheran High Schools, has gone to the shelter several times to check on the pets and give shots. And he's also treated other pets from New Orleans, mainly ones who have gotten in fights.

Saturday night, he had five emergency calls after dog fights, all at homes where several families gathered with their various dogs. The normal rate is one every two or three weeks. "I think it happens when "the dogs are establishing new territory and dominance." On the information form, one New Orleans resident wrote down "under water" when asked for his address, Seemann said.

Morris looked happy and content as he looked over his temporary flock of humans and pets. "Animals calm people down. And pet lovers usually have gentle hearts. If you go in the other shelter, people tend to sit still and idle. Here, there's a lot going on. And what's wonderful is the way our students are volunteering and helping wherever they can. For us this is a mission that helps the evacuees and their pets as well as our students who are here taking care of them."

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