Art spotlights rescue of New Orleans pets

Published: Saturday, Sept. 1 2007 12:51 a.m. MDT

Artist Cyrus Mejia, a founder of Best Friends Animal Society, shows artwork depicting the rescue of animals after Katrina.

Associated Press

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ANGELS CANYON, Kane County — Beverly, the human, didn't survive Hurricane Katrina, but her namesake, a frightened cat, lived, thanks to a note her owner left behind, which was found by volunteers from Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab.

A copy of that note is forever embedded in a colorful replica of the flat-bottomed boats that were used by Best Friends volunteers to help rescue thousands of distraught animals made homeless by Katrina two years ago.

The Katrina reminders are the artwork of Cyrus Mejia. Titled "Ark," the work was unveiled this week to employees and volunteers who work with Best Friends. It will be available for tours around the country, said Mejia, and should invoke a variety of emotions from those who view it.

"I can't tell people what to feel, but I hope folks could allow it (the artwork) to do its work," he said.

The 4-foot-by-10-foot boat is covered in a collage of photographs sent in by volunteers, copies of intake forms, satellite photos of Katrina, maps of New Orleans and strips of paper from bags of pet food and other supplies.

The boat's interior reflects the safety of the rescue center, while the exterior represents the anxious days of constantly working on the water to save animals in the flooded city. The boat is suspended by steel cables and appears to float on unseen waters. A recording of lapping water and a lone, howling dog plays in the background.

Mejia, an artist and original founder of the nation's largest no-kill animal sanctuary, helped process thousands of rescued creatures in Katrina's aftermath through a temporary center in Tylertown, Miss. Best Friends volunteers arrived in New Orleans as the water was rising and spent 249 days there, seeking out and saving the cats and dogs left behind when owners were forced to flee.

"One day I had the job of looking through these intake forms for a particular animal and I realized I wanted to make art from those materials," Mejia said during an interview at Best Friends Animal Society this week. "I believe that physical objects can retain emotion and link us back to something that happened. It took me a year and a half before I could do it."

Every animal rescued by Best Friends following Katrina was catalogued and tracked to its final destination, whether that meant being reunited with an owner or being adopted by someone else.

One photograph shows a burly white bulldog wrapped in the arms of an equally strong rescuer. Nearby is a bright blue boat where the dog had been found, tied inside by someone as the floodwaters rose, Mejia said. In large red letters the words "dog in boat" were painted across the boat's side.

"We later learned it was a National Guard soldier who saw the dog there and wrote those words on the boat," likely in hopes the animal would be rescued, said Mejia. "He wasn't equipped to rescue the dog and never knew what happened to it. He even adopted a similar dog because he felt so bad about it."

Hurricane Katrina exposed a blind spot in the nation's response to disasters, Mejia said..

"There were all these people, thousands of the unseen and poor, who weren't evacuated. And there were thousands more pets that people weren't allowed to take with them when they were evacuated," Mejia recalled. "People battened down and thought they were leaving their pets behind with food and water, safe for a few days. They didn't know they wouldn't be allowed to go back. There was no plan for that."

Best Friends was the first organization on the scene to help rescue the animals and send appeals out to others for help.

"Nobody realized the extent of the problem," he said. "It was really a wake-up call. Since then, laws have been changed so that when you're evacuated, you can take your pet with you."

Hurricane Katrina "completely transformed" the face of Best Friends, Mejia says.

"We had been involved peripherally in some rescue operations, but since coming out of Katrina, we've developed a rapid response rescue team," he said. "If you want to be able to work with federal, state and local authorities during an emergency, you have to be able to speak the same language and have the same training."

Ultimately, Best Friends hopes to be able to "shadow" government agencies during emergencies and take rescued animals to a sanctuary located near the evacuation centers.

"There are still problems, still feral animals and thousands of people who can't return to New Orleans," said Mejia, who grew up there and now lives just outside of Kanab. "There wasn't a huge percentage of people who were reunited with their pets."

Mejia is hoping that everyone who sees the Ark will write a prayer for New Orleans and leave it behind as a permanent addition to the artwork. For information about Mejia and Best Friends, go online to bestfriends.org


E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com

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