“I know I’m keeping this for something. One day I’ll know what to do with it,” wrote animal communicator and disaster responder Terri Steuben in her journal on the seventh day of her two-week volunteer stint in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck.
Steuben had spent 14 days plowing through nonstop rescue operations in the muddy, chemical-soaked trenches between pre-dawn and evening at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center outside New Orleans. The venue had been converted into a holding area and command center for rescue operations.
It took Steuben nearly 10 years, almost to the anniversary of the catastrophic deluge, to be able to distance herself emotionally from the rescues and knit her memoirs into a book that told the story of the sweat, the thankfully very little blood, and a whole lot of tears that represent the story of The Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) volunteers and their efforts to rescue thousands upon thousands of dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, some wildlife and at least one 300-pound pig after the levees burst and they were left stranded.
Steuben has one advantage over most storytellers dealing with pets: as laid out in her first book, Secrets of a Pet Whisperer: Stop Telling Your Animals to Misbehave (read the review here), she’s a pet whisperer. She can communicate with animals to locate them and find out what condition they’re in. She does this with pets in everyday life, and it certainly came in handy in every neighborhood in New Orleans that she and her partners entered.
Whether or not every house had bars on it or the furnishings indicated a tony lifestyle, Steuben got in touch loud and clear. She pulled out King, who had been tied on a short chain under his house up against a cinder block because his owner had left him to die for not participating in a dog fight. In another house was litter of pit bull puppies whose owner had intended to use them as bait dogs in another fighting ring (the puppies all went to good homes).
There were dogs whose feet burned from the chemicals, and Steuben talked them into stepping into litter boxes filled with soothing liquids. Jasmine, the 22-pound cat, was nearly the only pet (besides the pig) who wasn’t emaciated because she’d found her way into several boxes of Pop-Tarts, which doubtless added to her already impressive girth. And there were the two dogs found tied up in a parking garage that were a source of frustration to Steuben and her team—not the dogs themselves but the two men who had driven in there regularly and had made no attempt to give them food or water. They were sent off with their tails between their legs.
Steuben has said that anyone can learn to communicate with their animals, but in this, she minimizes her gift—it’s a rare individual who can listen. And her gift doesn’t involve closing her eyes and concentrating, and every Fluffy, Fido and Chirpy in the area will follow her as if she were Dr. Doolittle. The work she described was harrowing and often heartbreaking—so many of the pets were in desperate, near-death conditions and some had already passed. The description of the white Scotty found lying on his side on his owner’s bed will set a reader to sobbing. Anyone, gifted or no, who took part in this rescue was heroic, and Steuben made certain that the readers would know it.
A lot of people will scoff at the idea of a person who can plug into an animal’s psyche, but Steuben’s used to it. She told of a good many human eye rolls and an equal number of converts after the fact. But even disregarding that, the book is an exemplar of life in the animal-advocate community: the dialogue attributed to the pets (and it seemed pretty realistic to me—the dogs sounded entirely trusting and eager to bond, and the cats were all either snarky or pleased with themselves) hold object lessons: dogs shouldn’t be left tied to short leads, and water should be provided at all times; you should have an escape plan for your pets; pit bull-fighting and bait animals are scourges.
In the epilogue, Steuben noted the continuation of her work with the Surf City Animal Response Team (SCART) of which she’s a founding member and an invitation to Sacramento to speak and work on California Assembly Bill 450, which was designed to provide for the evacuation of pets in case of disaster. The bill passed shortly after, making California one of the first states in the nation to require disaster preparedness for pets and livestock. In October 2006, HR3858, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS), was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Without the HSUS and such local and national agencies as the ASPCA, PetSmart Charities, and the International Fund for Animal Rescue (IFAW) and their hard work to save animals in the hundreds of thousands, these and other such laws would never have passed.
This book is more than a tribute to the bravery of both pets and volunteers—it’s also Terri Steuben’s thank-you to all involved: HSUS, the National Guard, local law enforcement, her partners in rescue, her supervisors, the random individuals who jumped in and organized the supply store, the laundromat owner who did her laundry for free, the gas station attendant who gave the humane workers free fill-ups, and of course, every pet who broke through his or her fear and allowed Steuben and the crew to lead them to safety. I understand that she’s still in touch with one or two.
Terri Steuben will be signing Tails of Triumph: Animals Tell Their Katrina Stories at Apostrophe Books, 5229 East Second Street, Long Beach from 6:00 to 8:00PM during Stroll and Savor. She will autograph books and give disaster-preparedness tips for pet owners.
Terri Steuben’s web page gives information about her books, pet disaster preparedness, animal communication and other related information. Click on this link to donate to HSUS so they may further other acts of heroism toward animals.
Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem.
A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh