Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dan & Laura

Dan & Laura Maloney are friends of mine. They are also heroes. They saved the animals of New Orleans.

You don’t believe me, do some googling. I may have a few of the details wrong, but the hero thing and what they did for the people and city of New Orleans is absolutely true.

Katrina. The four year anniversary of this national tragedy and disgrace is in August. Why do we have an Obama for President? Most Americans got wise to the fact that, with the Republicans in power, every city in America was a Katrina waiting to happen. Anyone, anywhere could be the next victim of cronyism, ineptitude and neglect. The presidency of George W. Bush was more than just an appalling embarrassment, his legacy shames us as a nation. Cutting funding to fix the Levees, denying climate change and stifling any study of the ecological problems that led to this extreme weather event, his lack of leadership in responding to one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. History—Katrina is at or near the top of the long list of historical regrets Bush bequeathed us. But I am not here to spew political facts, I mean, uhh… opinions.

What is the measure of a society? Certainly, one measure must be our ability to safeguard animals. What kind of civilization would we have if we refused to take care of our animals?

I have friends and acquaintances who have never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Yankee Stadium, but I don’t know anybody that grew up and/or lives in the greater New York area who never went to the Bronx Zoo. Going to a zoo is something everyone does at least once, usually in childhood. Zoos are one way we first learn curiosity, compassion and wonder. House pets give us a similar experience, in addition to companionship. Observing and interacting with animals are among everyone’s earliest lessons of nature. Loving animals, appreciating animals, taking responsibility for the well being of our fellow creatures, makes us better human beings. Maybe that is where morality begins.

Dan & Laura are animal people. Dan is a zoologist and Laura is involved with humane services. They are part of a close-knit network of professionals who have dedicated their careers to the well being and preservation of animals. Their commitment can be awe inspiring; it is more than a job, it is a vocation. What goes on behind the scenes at a zoo or animal shelter involves sometimes very hard work, patience and an eclectic skill set—science, biology, animal behavior, medicine and nutrition, diplomacy to work with politicians, bureaucrats, donors and the public. Animal people adapt to these many demands because they are duty-bound to a single-minded goal—sustaining and enhancing the quality of life for our animals.

Danny—we’ve been friends since third grade—worked in several zoos before becoming the General Curator of the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans in the 90s. One of his first responsibilities was to draw up plans and policies for the zoo to survive a disaster. These emergency procedures and protocols were followed during Katrina. Look up Audubon Zoo on wikipedia, and you’ll see him quoted: “The zoo had planned for years for the catastrophic storm that has long been predicted for New Orleans."

Well, he’s the guy who devised those plans. The Audubon Zoo has more than 2,000 animals on exhibit. It is the headquarters of the Audubon Institute, an organization vital to the study of zoology and saving endangered species world-wide.

It is one thing to draw up disaster plans, quite another to implement them successfully. Dan and his staff stayed at the zoo when Katrina made land fall. For two months after the storm they never left the zoo grounds. They subsisted on concession stand food for days. The zoo is on high ground so it wasn’t submerged like most of the city. But this location also meant it was a major staging point for rescue efforts. Dan and his staff, in addition to managing repairs, healing animal injuries, maintaining the environmental control the animals required, and fulfilling the daily responsibility of feeding and caring for the hundreds of creatures (from around the world and each with specific care needs)— they had to perform these duties while avoiding interference with the disorganized mass of rescue personnel using the zoo grounds as a base.

The zoo employees had homes, families and friends in New Orleans. During the early weeks of the recovery efforts, they had only bits of information (and a ton of rumor) about the world outside the Audubon. The zookeepers had to do their job through one of the worst natural disasters in history while enduring the immense anxiety of not knowing the status of their loved ones, homes and belongings.

Reportedly, only three animals—out of 2,000—perished at the Audubon Zoo as a result of Katrina. August 29th was the date when one of the deadliest hurricanes in history hit New Orleans. By Thanksgiving, the Audubon Zoo was receiving visitors. Well before the re-opening of the French Quarter, the Convention Center or most of the casinos, restaurants and hotels, the people of New Orleans had their zoo back.

Laura and Dan met about 20 years ago as employees of the Philadelphia Zoo. After they married, they moved to New Orleans. Laura became the Chief Executive Officer of the Louisiana SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). About a year before Katrina, she led the SPCA component of a successful effort to break up a dog fighting ring. She received numerous death threats for this endeavor. She also worked for legislation in Louisiana to enact an Animal Evacuation law and to end the inhumane sport of Cockfighting.

In the days preceding Katrina, Laura evacuated more than 260 animals from the New Orleans SPCA facility to Houston. Katrina reached landfall on a Monday and that Friday, she was back in the city leading the animal rescue effort. New Orleans citizens who had to be evacuated were not permitted to take their pets. The SPCA facilities had been flooded. She coordinated the establishment of a temporary shelter and then went to work with humane society colleagues and volunteers who came to the ravaged city from across the nation to save abandoned pets.

The SPCA had addresses of an estimated 7,000 companion animals—not just dogs & cats, but also ferrets, horses, reptiles and several species of birds. These addresses were just an initial data-base; the organization received reports of thousands of other animals abandoned throughout the city. Laura and her team went through the flooded streets in search of these homeless pets, working around the rescue activities of FEMA, the National Guard and the rest of the responders. They went door to door. They pieced together information to find an abandoned animal and then had to capture the animal while bloated corpses floated alongside them in the fetid muck.

Although volunteers and others came to help, the core of Laura’s team were from New Orleans. They performed this excruciating mission while not knowing the whereabouts of family and friends, or even if they still had a place to live. Want to test your dedication to your beliefs and ideals? Try acting on that dedication while not knowing what is left of the life you led and all the news reports you see show the city you call home in ruins.

The animals not only had to be rescued, but many required some kind of medical treatment and had to be sheltered and fed before owners—themselves displaced by the disaster—could be located. Laura coordinated all those aspects of the rescue operation. Laura was on the frontline, the point person, the team leader. More than 8,000 animals owe their lives to her. Most of those pets were eventually reunited with their owners or adopted. But there were hundreds—well, likely thousands—that could not be saved. No matter what she did—and there was nothing else more that could be done given the available resources, the magnitude of the disaster and the unbelievable degree of incompetence and corruption displayed by public officials—she could only save a portion of the companion animals of New Orleans. Time just ran out. Laura has devoted her life to the welfare of animals and this devotion—and the seriousness she takes in her profession—put her in an impossible position. No matter how hard she worked, some of the animals she was responsible for remained beyond her reach to suffer and perish. She performed a duty that could only break her heart (but not her spirit).

They’re heroes, Dan & Laura. During one of the darkest periods of New Orleans (and the United States), they held their posts, went above and beyond. When the flooding subsided and the rebuilding began, people had their zoo and their pets. In other words, they had their humanity.


  1. Nice piece and beautiful picture.

  2. Absolutely wondeful. It made me cry!!

  3. Hey Tim, I'm Dan's cousin JanetDeiner....great piece. I agree, they are an amazing couple and I'm glad to be a part of their life

  4. Who knew Tim could bring a tear to my eye! Thank you, what a great observation, and one we ourselves may never have stopped to consider... it really was a miracle what they both accomplished.