The first four-legged evacuee to reach Western New York from hurricane-battered New Orleans looked underweight and nervous upon landing Wednesday at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
Who wouldn't be after being separated from loved ones, swimming through toxic floodwaters, scavenging for food while ducking gunshots and then being confined for days in a cage many miles from home?
The nameless curly-haired mutt -- thought to be a terrier-Chihuahua mix -- didn't realize he was one of the lucky ones as he hopped from a nylon pet carrier set down on the marble terminal floor by Joanie D'Aurelio, a member of the Erie County SPCA staff who was returning from a 10-day animal rescue mission in southern Louisiana.
She was working in a temporary shelter set up in the Baton Rouge convention center, where thousands of homeless pets have been given refuge, when the little guy's plaintive brown eyes got her attention.
"He looked a little raggy -- kind of pathetic, lonely," D'Aurelio said.
She was the first of 24 local SPCA volunteers to join the relief effort, and before returning from the 10-day assignment, asked permission to bring back her new companion.
"He's got a teary eye and a little cough. It may be kennel cough, so he'll need some treatment," the Cheektowaga resident said.
Two more canine victims of the killer storm -- one with chemical burns and the other badly malnourished -- were being driven back to Buffalo by SPCA veterinarian Tim O'Leary. The SPCA has agreed to place up to 200 in area shelters if need be, said Executive Director Barbara Carr.
Pictures of rescued animals are posted on the Web site petfinder.com. If animals that end up here go unclaimed, they will be put up for local adoption.
Soon after arriving in Baton Rouge, D'Aurelio and O'Leary earned the respect of officials from the U.S. Humane Society and Louisiana SPCA, Carr said. They were assigned to treat animals both at the Baton Rouge shelter and triage centers in New Orleans.
"They've seen some pretty rough stuff -- horrible things," she said. Volunteers are flying to Louisiana on a rotating basis, and will put in 10 days at a time there for up to three months.
Driving down to Louisiana with D'Aurelio and O'Leary was Beth Shapiro of Buffalo, a humane education associate who spent a week overseeing the cats at an animal shelter set up in livestock barns at the Lamar Dixon Expo grounds in Gonzalez, La., 50 miles north of New Orleans.
"The cats were stacked in metal crates and carriers," Shapiro said, "and we would set up fans for them to keep the air moving. We had cats we would literally put on ice. We'd put a towel on top of the ice and put a cat on it so it could cool down. That's one of the things we'd do all day. And we tried to give them love."
The Erie County SPCA also contributed a minivan -- donated for 10 weeks by Culligan Auto Place and Hertz -- and a motor home, both packed with supplies.
In fact the Katrina rescue effort triggered an unprecedented outpouring from area animal lovers, said SPCA spokeswoman Gina Browning.
Three days after the call went out for donations of money and goods, the organization had taken in $22,000 and enough supplies to fill the auditorium at its Ensminger Road facility in the Town of Tonawanda.
"Never in 15 years with the SPCA have I seen giving like this. We can't get people to stop," Browning said.
News Staff Reporter Dale Anderson contributed to this report.