When we picked up the 50-pound black-and-tan mixed-breed dog from the Maryland SPCA 10 years ago, we weren't sure what to expect. We hadn't met him, or even seen a picture. All we knew was that he'd spent two months in transit to Baltimore after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.
Struck by TV images of the disaster, my husband and I responded to a call for foster parents.
The dog was about 8 months old. He had frayed paw pads, a large gash over one eye and was filled with worms. He huddled on the floorboards of our car during the ride home, drooling and panting.
Dizzy, as we'd named him in honor of his jazz roots, was one of 189 cats and dogs the Maryland SPCA took in when local resources were overwhelmed. Volunteers brought them in crates stacked in U-Haul trucks, mostly from Mississippi.
People abandoned their pets because authorities wouldn't allow them in shelters, causing grim consequences for many people and animals. (Federal law passed since requires emergency responders to accommodate pets.)
The Louisiana SPCA estimates that 44 percent of people didn't evacuate during Katrina because they refused to leave their animals. Still, more than 100,000 pets were left to fend for themselves, likely by residents who thought they'd be right back.
Local groups and outsiders, some organized and others less so, dropped off 8,500 animals at the SPCA's massive makeshift shelter outside New Orleans alone.
One of them was Chaz, a furry red mutt captured after two months on the streets. He was emaciated and infected with heartworms when workers finally trapped him. Deemed dangerously scared, he was sent to a segregated tent.
Helen Hester, an animal lover who worked in an upscale downtown hotel, was so moved by the devastation in her hometown that she volunteered and ended up reading the newspaper to Chaz in an effort to soothe him. She did this for six months.
"I kept thinking his real family would come back for him," Hester said. "I realized they weren't coming and he was finally moved to the adoption area. … I hadn't realized that he was my dog."
They now live together with a menagerie of other dogs and cats in Hester's house, which was largely spared by Katrina. No longer a threat, Chaz often visits nursing homes and local schools, though he's still unnerved by thunderstorms.
Eventually, an estimated 15,500 animals were rescued but fewer than 20 percent were reunited with their families. Collars, if they had them, listed telephone numbers that were no longer working. Up to 70,000 animals are thought to have died.
It's not clear where Dizzy rode out the hurricane or where exactly in Mississippi he was picked up. I often wonder if his family looked for him.
Katie Flory, then three months into her job as the Maryland SPCA's volunteer coordinator, said officials contacted the Humane Society of Mississippi to offer help. Two staffers went to New Orleans, and transport trucks began arriving in Baltimore two months later. They continued for three months.
The Maryland SPCA had just a small foster program at the time, so Flory emailed and called people around the region until most of the 189 animals were linked to foster parents, most of whom the shelter had to train and provide ongoing support.
Many of the animals had medical needs, and all were severely traumatized having been separated from their families, left without food, and then confined and moved across many state lines to unfamiliar environments.
Flory said the experience brought an impressively large stable of foster families and other caring volunteers to the shelter, which adopts out some 3,500 animals annually. But it also gave the shelter valuable lessons in disaster preparedness and an understanding of how to care for animals after traumatic events.
"The awesome thing is how resilient they are," Flory said, adding that the shelter eventually found permanent homes for all the animals. Some, like Dizzy, never left their foster families.
After weeks of adjusting, Dizzy finally began eating more than a few pieces of kibble out of my hand. Sleeping through the night took longer, as did redeveloping trust of humans.
He was weary of cages, so we let him roam, and we took him for long outings to relax and tire him. An experienced behaviorist worked with him for free, but angst still often got the better of him. He chewed up a couch, a chair and some baseboard, in addition to every kind of dog toy.
Eventually, there were sparks of joy. He discovered a love of peanut butter, napping on soft things and chasing other dogs.
Now that it's been 10 years, Dizzy's a bit gray and recently required knee surgery. He still fears loud noises and crowds, has a sensitive tummy and suffers bouts of nervousness. But he quickly cleans his bowl, takes himself up to bed when he's ready and wags mightily at the sight of his leash and the park.
He's outlived many of his Baltimore dog friends.
People still want to hear every detail about his journey from the Gulf Coast, though we have few. I'm not sure if the appeal is because he survived something so thoroughly awful or that people just crave happy endings.
Like Helen and Chaz, we didn't immediately know Dizzy was our dog. But we're thankful for the trail of people who made sure we met.