Part I in a series of four articles. This first part tells how this invisible Katrina Pet Reunion team formed, and the services they provided.
(August 20, 2008)  By Robin Siegel, Stealth Volunteer

Mindy Bryan, the only local Stealth volunteer, posted flyers throughout the Katrina-effected parishes at old addresses. Flyers alerted visiting or returning residents that Stealth had located their pet. Photo © Laura Bergerol.

Mindy Bryan, the only local Stealth volunteer, posted flyers throughout the Katrina-effected parishes at old addresses. Flyers alerted visiting or returning residents that Stealth had located their pet. Photo © Laura Bergerol.

Editor’s Note: As part of the events marking the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Animal Rescue New Orleans is presenting an award to (and receiving an award from) the Stealth Volunteers. Okay, it sounds like a ‘love fest’ between ARNO and Stealth, and we admit it is. Most people have never heard of Stealth — they prefer to remain hidden from the limelight — but to those they have reunited, they are the most important group in the world. ARNO asked Robin Siegel, a Stealther in Silver Spring, Maryland, to write this series of stories to let everyone know of the service they have performed and continue to perform for the lost pets of Katrina. We thought since they will be ‘revealed’ at the Memorial Ceremonies on the third anniversary of Katrina, you should know exactly who these wonderful people are.

Stealth Volunteers, a group of hundreds of online researchers, were responsible for locating the owners of some 1000 cats, dogs, and other pets that were evacuated from south Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina. A thousand times, one of us – or a small team of two or three of us – were rewarded in our round-the-clock efforts with the words “OMG! That’s my dog!” Or “That’s my cat! Where did you find her?” And “We lost everything in the storm; all we wanted back was our pets.”

I am a typical Katrina volunteer. On the afternoon of August 29, 2005, I was sitting in an Emergency Preparedness Committee meeting at my company 1300 miles from Katrina, talking about the news of the day: about how New Orleans had “dodged a bullet” when the hurricane withdrew and left them relatively dry that morning. We all looked at each other and said: “So far.” Within 24 hours, we were burning up the wires trying to ascertain whether loved ones and acquaintances were safe and accounted for. Like everyone else, we expected the crisis to last a few days, maybe a couple of weeks. Within a week, we knew better, and the horror was slowly becoming clear, and we were looking for ways to help.

We are so Thankful to you and everyone who helped us. I am not sure who gave her a message but someone on base got her a phone, we screamed and cried so much tonight all I know is we know she is safe. Message from Linda, one of the San Antonio evacuees, after Stealth Volunteers found her sister, 9/15/05.

Possum is a little mixed terrier rescued from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Possum is pictured looking for her previous home in New Orleans.

Possum is a little mixed terrier rescued from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Possum is pictured looking for her previous home in New Orleans.

Marilyn Knapp Litt is a scrappy little Texan who had a big idea when evacuated New Orleanians came to her town early in September 2005. Armed with nothing more than computer skills and a desire to help, Marilyn pulled a few friends together, went to the shelters in San Antonio, and started searching for the missing family members of the evacuees she met there. “It was a way to let the evacuee know they were not forgotten and someone was working on their problem.” A few days later, on September 11, with her first success under her belt, she set up a Yahoo!Groups listserv to communicate with her volunteers, and Stealth Volunteers was born, to find people missing from Katrina.

Just send me an e-mail b/c if you want an assignment. We are going to be doing this for awhile I think. Marilyn Knapp Litt, Message #41 of 24884 to Stealth Volunteers, 9/16/05

Twelve days later, the ten volunteers had tracked down dozens of missing family members for Katrina evacuees in shelters in San Antonio and beyond, by searching shelters, hospitals, military bases, and databases all around the country. The list of missing persons had dwindled to so few that Marilyn announced to her little group, “Our work with the families is winding down.  We could now start trying to locate family members who are separated from their animals.”

Everyone was aware by this time that thousands of animals were being shipped out of Louisiana to be fostered by shelters around the country, so Marilyn asked her volunteers for help finding shelters and people holding animals whose owners were unlikely to know their whereabouts.

Stealth was unable to locate Possum’s owners, so Robin Siegel adopted her. She may be the ‘odd man out’ in this home of Norwich Terriers, but Possum is very happy to have Robin as a Mom and the terriers as siblings.

Stealth was unable to locate Possum’s owners, so Robin Siegel adopted her. She may be the ‘odd man out’ in this home of Norwich Terriers, but Possum is very happy to have Robin as a Mom and the terriers as siblings.

Two days later she posted an appeal for volunteers on the NOLA.com forums, asking if they would be willing to help locate evacuated families, and a week later her ten volunteers had become 70. Two weeks later we were 200, and two weeks after that we were over 700 strong.

The volunteers came from various sources, including the ranks of the emergency rescue volunteers of New Orleans, shelters and rescues around the country, the NOLA.com forums, various newly formed listservs with names like KatrinaPetRescue and HurricanePets, and many early volunteers came from a database provided by Petfinder.com. “It was Betsy Saul’s offer to give me the volunteer database from PetFinder that provided most of my volunteers,” says Marilyn. It was just the beginning of an immeasurable contribution made by this generous organization.

I have already sent out a couple of assignments which I took off PetFinder …This is going to be new for us, so share your results and suggestions so we can quickly find our feet. Marilyn Knapp Litt, Message #100 to Stealth Volunteers, 9/26/05 (first pet cases assigned)

Using online resources, Stealth took the found reports listed at Petfinder.com’s Katrina database and the online listings of the other rescue organizations, and tracked down the owners of those animals. We contacted neighbors and relatives of the families listed at the addresses where the pets were found, searched tax records to find landlords, and queried the owners of returned pets to see if they could help identify pets found near theirs. Every possible link was explored, and the hunt left Stealthers unfed, unwashed, and sleepless at their computers for days and weeks during the last months of 2005. Everything else became secondary in their lives to finding the owners of these displaced animals and letting them know where their beloved pets had gone. We were caseworkers, case-makers, case-assigners, detectives, phone researchers, social workers, advocates, agents, and advertisers. We kept in touch with each other through email and phone, worked cases together or alone, neglecting our families and our jobs in order to get pets back to their owners before it was too late.

Pit Bull dog  PF 47xxx – I found the owners in Vicksburg, MS – the female dog, “Misdemeanor”, was in the EARS shelter in Monroe, LA.  I contacted them yesterday and they made the 60+mile trip last night and got their girl. The family was missing two other Pits – both males.  I found them both today on Petharbor.com.  Just had to tediously go through page after page but they were listed with their “Found at 2105 Pxxxn”….  One dog, “Hercules”, is now in the AZ Humane Society and the other, “Terror”, is in the Tulsa (OK) shelter.  The family has been contacted and they will be pursuing a way to get their dogs. Case closed Mary Ann, Stealth Volunteer,  Message #405, 10/7/05 

Soon we had hundreds of reunions of pets and owners to our credit. Over the years since Katrina, that number has passed 1000, including many in which Stealth Volunteers provided legal assistance to owners who had fought to have their pets returned since the weeks after Katrina, only to find themselves embroiled in a legal battle that would last months, even years.

In the course of searching, many lifelong bonds were forged with others on their own paths to help the animals of New Orleans. One of those bonds was between Stealth and the rescuers on the ground in NOLA, especially the volunteers connected to the shelter known as ARNO. They have been our eyes and ears, and many of our reunions would not have been possible without their dauntless efforts for months after the storm. Our volunteers worked with theirs to fill the gaps left when Katrina tore asunder the lives of so many New Orleanians. It was war, and we were all soldiers in the same trenches. Now we have become benefactors and crate cleaners, and we still love ARNO.

FOUND! Photo © Laura Bergerol

FOUND! Photo © Laura Bergerol

I just talked to the man who owns cat #38xxx and he just heard back from the North Shore Animal League where his cat in now located.  They are currently arranging to transfer her to St. Louis, where he will be staying for a few months.  He was so thankful that I had helped him find his family’s beloved cat. Nicole, Stealth Volunteer, Message #382, 10/7/05

Even after three years, it’s difficult to talk about our experiences as Stealth Volunteers. Maybe it’s because the experience was so emotionally all-encompassing and overwhelming to each of us individually, or maybe because the global experience of the Stealth Volunteers as a group seems so vast, that none of us feels as if we really know what happened at all.

Three years later, the Stealth Volunteers are still on the job, searching for the long-lost and maybe recently returned owners of the far-flung lost pets of Katrina. Every month, in shelters and on electronic lists around the country, a one-time Katrina dog or cat will resurface, looking for a home, and within moments, a Stealth Volunteer or two – or more – will shout out that they are on the case.

I turned off the tv and went to my computer. What could I do? I had never helped with rescue before. Shirley, Stealth Volunteer
“Thank You, Whoever You Are”

“Big Government failed and politics failed but the people rose up, giving us such an abundance of things to be thankful for that it boggles the mind. And the strange thing is that – outside of each of our own singular experiences (those who sheltered us, gave clothes or money or provided whatever needs were most urgent) – most of us don’t even know who it is we’re supposed to thank and what it is they did for us. But there are hundreds of thousands of them – no, millions! – who made sacrifices of time, money, travel, labor, and spirit to help the people of south Louisiana and Mississippi get back on their feet and become some small semblance of what we once were and of what we will become again someday.”
Chris Rose, Times-Picayune, 11/23/06, republished in  1 Dead In Attic, 2007, the Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.