“What Would You Do?” – The Rescue Version

I spent the past three-day weekend cleaning out my basement, a long overdue and ultimately unavoidable task. At this point in my life, such an endeavor means frequent breaks to rest my back. So at one point, I thought I’d use the break time to finally watch some of the dog videos I purchased a while back.

I picked up the one called MINE, which I had ordered from www.filmmovement.com last winter. (Oh, so that’s how I got on their mailing list…..!) For some reason, maybe because of the artwork on the cover of the DVD, I thought this was a kids’ video, one I might be able to use with school presentations. I also thought it said “13 min.” on the back…just the right amount of time for a break. OK, sounds good…let’s go with this one.

The artwork on this DVD cover led me to think MINE was a film aimed at kids -- not so.

The artwork on this DVD cover led me to think MINE was a film aimed at kids — not so.

I pop it in, and soon realize this is not at all for kids. It’s a documentary describing the harrowing experiences of New Orleans residents during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, especially those with pets forced to leave them behind. It’s also not “13 min.” long, it’s more like “81 min.” long. (My eyes as well as my back must have been tired.)

Nonetheless, I keep watching. Several NOLA residents are interviewed, talking about how they left a few days’ worth of food and water for their dogs or cats, expecting to be back within that brief time frame to resume care. Other interviews detail the efforts of both professional and grassroots animal lovers to rescue the stranded pets weeks after the storm, when the city was still closed to frantic residents anxious (but unable) to retrieve their canine/feline family members.

Sad stories, sad pictures, sad times. But, I’ve seen these images before and I’m ashamed to admit, I felt a little jaded seeing them again. We all remember the terrible destruction of property, the frustration of people displaced for months or years, the scrawled notes on homes identifying those where animals had been retrieved by rescuers. I couldn’t figure out why this film had been so touted in whatever advertisement had prompted me to buy it.

Midway through, however, the focus shifted subtly but distinctly. The stories of lost pets turned into stories of moral dilemmas. Now I was watching the case studies of several dogs who were saved from Katrina, sent to shelters and rescue groups around the country, successfully adopted by new families, and then….unexpectedly identified by their original owners.

In some cases, the identification followed weeks, months, or years of persistent, determined searching by guilt-ridden owners who felt they had let their animals down (though the film is quite persuasive at showing that they truly had no choice).  One memorable scene showed a woman searching through a makeshift shelter for her elderly mother’s missing black Lab – the crates and cages spread out over a huge parking lot represented some 3,000 displaced Katrina animals. Can you imagine trying to find a black Lab among how many hundreds or thousands of other black Labs?? The daughter is overwhelmed, and understandably so.

Gloria's beloved black Lab, Murphy Brown, was left behind when the Gloria was forced to evacuate her New Orleans home. Gloria's daughter tried her best to locate Murphy among thousands of displaced dogs. Spoiler: Gloria and Murphy's story has a happy ending. ;-)

Gloria’s beloved black Lab, Murphy Brown, was left behind when Gloria was forced to evacuate her New Orleans home. Gloria’s daughter tried her best to locate Murphy among thousands of displaced dogs. Spoiler: Gloria and Murphy’s story does have a happy ending. ;- )

Now I understood the true impact of this film – the struggle to decide whether a dog should remain with its adoptive family or be returned to the owner who lost it through no fault of his/her own, an owner who clearly sees that “of course, that dog was, and still is…MINE.”

With my longtime history as a dog owner plus my longtime involvement with rescue, I found these stories gut-wrenching and fraught with Solomon-like decision-making. Some of the shelter and rescue personnel are portrayed as having less than desirable patience with people trying to get their pets back, as can be seen at the beginning of this trailer for the film. (In the full film, the conversation goes on much longer, with the rescuer’s voice and words clearly showing her exasperation at trying to explain yet again why she can’t help.) Some owners resorted to legal intervention in their desperate efforts to reclaim their pets…and in some cases, that’s the only way they were successful.

While I cringed at the seeming lack of compassion shown towards Jesse (the man in the trailer) as well as others, I have to admit I could empathize to some degree with the rescuer’s frustration. No doubt she was among the many groups around the country that rallied and worked tirelessly and thanklessly to take in these dogs and find homes for them. Reality and practicality trumped anything else: the sheer numbers of animals precluded the ability to hold them until a former owner from hundreds of miles away “might” show up.

But what happens when that owner DOES show up? How do you reconcile the emotional attachment of the person whose dog was so tragically displaced with the newly formed bonds built between dog and adoptive family? How does a shelter or rescue approach an adoptive family and say, “Sorry, we need to take your dog back now after you’ve grown to love and cherish him?” Some of the adoptive families were portrayed a bit negatively as well, in their unwillingness to consider returning the dog. Still, I can’t (and don’t want to) imagine the anguish they must have felt at this unexpected turn of events.

Complicating the issue are the socioeconomic, racial, and age-related factors underlying the tragedy of these dually-loved pets. Many came originally from economically challenged or elderly owners in New Orleans, people who may not have shared the same dog care standards as the middle-class northern families welcoming these dogs into their posher accommodations.

Known as Max in his original home and Joey in his adoptive home, this engaging dog was caught between two families who both loved him dearly.

Known as Max in his original home and Joey in his adoptive home, this engaging dog was caught between two families who both loved him dearly.

Several people interviewed in the film commented that “Katrina was the best thing that happened to these dogs” because it led to “better” lives for them in the long run. Many displaced dogs tested heartworm positive, had lived at least partially outside, and were no doubt unaccustomed to the more pampered lifestyle they serendipitously fell into when adopted.

But, who are we to judge? It was clear to me that every original owner interviewed in the film certainly loved their dogs dearly, whether or not they followed a different pet care protocol than mine or yours. Once they located their missing dogs, was it fair to keep the dog with the new family at least partly because that family had more money, access to better vet care, or a fancier home? On the other hand, should a dog now settled into a successful new placement be uprooted once again and subjected to the stress of re-adjustment to their former life?

My truthful answer: “I don’t know.”  In many of the situations presented, I could honestly see the point of view from both sides and I simply can’t fathom the difficulty of deciding, the untenable action of devastating one person while helping another, the challenge of weighing the pros and cons of each potential outcome for a dog unwittingly caught in the middle.

The filmmaker, Geralyn Pezanoski,  sympathizes unabashedly with those who want their dogs back, and I found myself leaning that way as well.  And yet, how would I feel if one of my adopted dogs were taken away after they had already established a clear, undeniable hold on my heart? (And we all know in most cases that happens around day two or three following their arrival…) How would I feel  as a rescue professional if I had found a wonderful home for a displaced Golden, only to “undo” that happy adoption a short time later, leaving heartbreak and most likely deep anger behind?

At DVGRR, we are very clear that once a dog is surrendered, the owner has relinquished all right to reclaim the dog; the signed intake agreement spells that out very directly. In my nineteen years as a DVGRR volunteer and staff member, I can remember only two or three times when an exception was made and the dog was returned to the original owner – always after much discussion and careful determination of what was in the best interest of all involved.

These cases differed significantly from the ones depicted in MINE, however, because the dogs were still in the custody of DVGRR and had not yet been adopted to a new family. Even more significantly, the surrendering families had made a conscious decision to rehome their dog; the ill-fated owners in MINE had no such intent or plan to do the same.

Moral, legal, ethical dilemmas – MINE  turned out to be a most impactful, engrossing film indeed, one that left me thinking about it and the issues it raised long afterwards. Watch it and I guarantee you will be moved as well.

To learn more, visit  The Film Movement site’s page about MINE.  If you would like to borrow my copy of the DVD, please contact me at donna@dvgrr.org.

This entry was posted in Rescue.

4 comments on ““What Would You Do?” – The Rescue Version

  1. Julie Rudolph says:

    Wonderful writing as usual Donna!!! Your commentary is always thought provoking. What was the ending for Murphy Brown??

  2. Donna Baker says:

    Thank you, Julie! In Gloria’s case, a large group of people rallied around her to search for Murphy and he was ultimately located in a foster home in California. A very lovely couple had been caring for him and he was doing wonderfully there. They were very happy to have him go back to Gloria, even though they really loved him. Murphy was reunited with Gloria, who was of course beyond thrilled to get him back. A few years later, she passed away and in her will she specified that Murphy should go back to the couple in California. As of the film production time, that’s where he was still living. I thought that was a sweet story with a win-win ending. Not all the others were as happy, though. ;-(

  3. gadgetsmom says:

    I think I would return a dog that I “adopted” under such circumstances. Of course it is easy to say; as an empty-nester with grown children I am in a position to do so without worrying about emotionally scarring my kids. But how long have I had the dog? Would that make a difference to me? Would I would ask to stay in touch with the owner; offer to share in the cost of medical care if necessary; hope for a photo or two around the holidays? What if the original owner wanted nothing to do with my idyllic plan? Did the adopters KNOW they were getting dogs from the Katrina situation? Would it make a difference to me if I knew or not?

    Thank you Donna, for a well written, thought provoking piece.

  4. somethingwagging says:

    I loved this documentary. And I really enjoyed reading your perspective as volunteer with an animal rescue.

    Many people criticize rescue workers for their stiff standards when placing animals. But the rescue exists to advocate for the animals they care for.

    The stories depicted in Mine highlighted the challenging issues facing anyone advocating for animals who can’t advocate for themselves. It’s also a good reminder that being kind to animals includes being kind to human animals.

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