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Louisiana SPCA, out-of-state volunteers debate need

NEW ORLEANS—Two animal-rights leaders are squaring off as New Orleans strains to regain calm. Their debate centers on just how many abandoned animals still wander the city's streets and how much help those animals need.

On one side is Jane Garrison, a volunteer from Charleston, S.C., who with 75 volunteers organized as AnimalRescueNewOrleans.com have fed, watered and trapped animals displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Volunteers around the country also make phone calls and post information and photos online to reunite owners and their pets. "Just last week, we had a dozen reunions," Garrison said from the organization's base camp in New Orleans.

On the other side is Laura Maloney, who heads the Louisiana Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has managed animal control for Orleans Parish for 117 years. Maloney's organization conducted a needs assessment last week and was surprised by the "low number of animals spotted in a city that typically has had a high stray population," according to a news release Friday.

"We're not seeing hundreds of starving animals," Maloney said in an interview.

She said she wasn't asking AnimalRescueNewOrleans.com to leave; she just doubts its services are needed.

The Louisiana SPCA, in conjunction with the Humane Society of the United States and other animal-rights groups, sent 10 two-person teams through five New Orleans-area hot spots last week in the morning and in early evening, hours when animals are most active. Each team saw an average of three dogs and three cats per period. Most of those animals were in good condition, though some were battling fleas and emaciation, the Louisiana SPCA said.

Those numbers sound low to Garrison. One weekend this month, her volunteers rescued 50 dogs, she said.

"They're thin, and we see a lot of leg injuries," she said. "Many animals have died of starvation or dehydration."

Garrison called the situation "overwhelming" and questioned why the Louisiana SPCA would want "to take control" of the situation when the state's animals need all the help they can get.

"Why would you want to discourage volunteers from helping?" she asked. "Even if things are back to normal, why wouldn't you want to take it from a pitiful problem to a nonexistent problem?"

Don Corsmeier, an AnimalRescueNewOrleans.com volunteer from Cincinnati, said he was confronted by representatives of the Louisiana SPCA three weeks ago while working in Orleans Parish.

"I don't know if they thought we weren't legitimate or what," he said. "None of us had LA/SPCA credentials with us at the time. We had a letter issued that had expired. We were escorted out by the National Guard."

Maloney said she had heard reports of unauthorized animal-rescue volunteers being escorted from restricted areas, particularly from the heavily damaged Lower Ninth Ward.

Such encounters have discouraged the volunteer effort, some said.

"Only people with nerves of steel will go out there," said Marilyn Magee, a volunteer from nearby Jefferson Parish who said she rescued a starving cat and three dogs last week. "Both had serious eye infections, and one had an ear that was rotting away."

The Louisiana SPCA has frustrations, too. Residents have called the agency's office to complain about finding messages such as "four cats under house" scrawled in black paint on their homes and vehicles or doors left open by animal-rescue volunteers.

To manage the stray population, the Louisiana SPCA plans to contract with an experienced, humane trapper and to launch an aggressive spaying and neutering program. Rescued animals will be routed through area shelters and linked with previous or new owners, the organization said.

AnimalRescueNewOrleans.com, meanwhile, has no plans to pull out. Every day, the organization gets dozens of calls from people hoping to be reunited with their pets and others reporting sightings of lost and injured animals, Garrison said.

"We plan to stay as long as there's a need," she said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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