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Mine: The Pets That Hurricane Katrina Left Behind

by Jessica Mosby

The most emotionally and politically-charged documentary of the year is about a surprisingly original subject: the domestic pets that were lost or left behind in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Mine artfully portrays the class discrimination, utter chaos, and distress that surround one of the worst disasters to occur in the United States in recent history. At the heart of the film are the helpless pets that were forced to fend for themselves and then, after surviving Katrina, were not reunited with their owners.

Mine premiered at the 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival, and after some early and much-deserved praise the film has screened at a number of other film festivals, including the Mill Valley Film Festival and SF Doc Fest. In February, the 80-minute documentary aired on PBS’s Independent Lens. A number of screenings are scheduled as part of the film’s theatrical release in the coming months, and the DVD will be released on May 4. Currently Mine is available to rent or own through iTunes.

Director and producer Geralyn Rae Pezanoski creates a narrative that balances the experiences of pet-owning hurricane survivors with the mission of animal rescuers and the confusion of people who adopted “Katrina pets” only to be asked to return the animals to their original owners. Pezanoski films each person and animal with compassion and understanding. During the post-screening Q&A at the MVFF, Pezanoski said she was affected by her own experience of adopting a Katrina dog while filming the documentary. The pet’s original owners never came forward, but Pezanoski said she was still forced to consider what she would do if they contacted her and wanted their dog back.

In the fall of 2005, residents of New Orleans were forced to evacuate as Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the city. Jesse Pullins evacuated 20 family members, which left no room for his dog JayJay. He left JayJay at his home, but by the time he was allowed to return to New Orleans his dog was gone. During interviews with New Orleans residents this scenario becomes devastatingly common. Many residents had to choose between evacuating a family member or a pet, or lacked transportation altogether and were forced to rely on buses that prohibited pets. The evacuees Pezanoski meets all believed they would be able to return to the city in a few days, not weeks or months.

Once animals were separated from their owners, the chances of a reunion became unlikely. Like Pullins, New Orleans native, 86-year-old Malvin Cavalier, fled to the Super Dome, leaving his dog Bandit at home with food and water. Instead of being able to return to his home, Cavalier was forced to evacuate to Houston, Texas leaving Bandit behind. Once back in New Orleans, Bandit was gone and Cavalier didn’t know where to start looking.

As residents were being evacuated, animal rescue volunteers like Karen O’Toole devoted themselves to finding animals trapped in houses or roaming the abandoned streets. Rescuers broke into flood-ravaged homes, evacuating thousands of dogs and cats who were without food and water, the footage of which is nothing short of amazing.

As the volume of animals in need increased exponentially and the temporary animal rescue facilities reached capacity, dogs and cats left New Orleans for foster homes and animal shelters across the country. The decision may have saved the animals’ lives, but it also meant they were even farther from their owners. Mine never criticizes rescuers or questions their efforts; rather, it criticizes the government’s ineptitude in Katrina’s aftermath as residents were not allowed to return to the city to get their pets while animal rescue volunteers were granted easy access.

Post-Katrina residents who lost their pets faced the overwhelming challenge of tracking them down. 70-year-old Gloria Richardson was prepared to stay in New Orleans and die with her dog Murphy Brown, but she was forcibly evacuated by the National Guard leaving the dog behind. Finding a black lab like Murphy Brown, even with identification, is a nearly impossible endeavor.

Many of the evacuated animals were placed in new homes that were believed to be permanent. The film represents the moral conundrum new owners faced when asked to return their new dog or cat to the original owner. Florida residents Tiffany and Jeremy Mansfield believed they were rescuing a dog when they brought home a Jack Russell terrier from a local shelter and named him Joey. But months later Victor Marino finds the Mansfields and asks that they return his dog, Max. Tiffany takes the news particularly hard as she has become very attached to “Joey,” but also feels badly for Marino. Pezanoski’s direction sympathetically acknowledges the very emotional decision Tiffany faces while respecting Victor’s desire to reunite with his pet.

Mine resonates so strongly in part because Pezanoski exposes the class and racial discrimination that thwarted many New Orleans residents’ efforts to find their pets. In the eyes of the Louisiana legal system, animals are considered property, which owners have three years to claim. Some of the new owners, particularly those outside the city, believed that the animals had a better life with them and should not be returned – some so fervently refused that lawsuits were filed and custody battles ensued. Although the film does document animals that were rescued from abusive homes, it also captures owners like Pullins, Cavalier, and Richardson who loved their pets and did not want to be separated from them.

The plight of Katrina survivors who lacked the resources to evacuate their animals during the hurricane and then lacked the required means to find their pets as they are trying to rebuild their homes and lives is devastating. But for every heart-breaking story documented in Mine, there is an inspiring counterpart; hundreds of volunteers devoted themselves to finding Murphy Brown, who was actually living in California, in time for Richardson’s 71st birthday. The lovable canine attended the film’s screening at the MVFF.

These moving accounts, coupled with the harrowing efforts of animal rescuers, make Mine an incredibly thought-provoking film that challenges governmental and personal decisions made in the wake Hurricane Katrina. It also makes a strong case for better natural disaster preparedness that takes animals into account. Animals may be considered “property” but they are still living beings whose lives should be valued.

Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

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