When I talked to Lynn Chiche on Wednesday morning, she was getting medical records together for the 10 cats she was taking from her SpayMart Sanctuary in Picayune, Miss., to Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. She was thrilled because they were on their way to new forever homes.
“It’s going to be awesome,” she said. “Alaskan Airlines is doing once-a-week transports, taking flood dogs and cats to the Northwest. The Cat Adoption Team in Portland , Ore., has agreed to take 10 of our cats.”
I was not surprised when she told me about the days she had spent in late August, visiting overstressed and overcrowded shelters from Denham Springs to Opelousas, leaving supplies and picking up kitties — a whole lot of kitties, as it turned out.
“I never intended to take so many,” she said, which made me laugh.
Once, a long time ago, Chiche told me she was like an alcoholic, except it wasn’t another drink she craved.
“I just always have to save one more cat,” she said.
That could be her motto.
She and Pam Casey founded SpayMart in 1998 with the mission of promoting spaying and neutering to help solve the pet overpopulation crisis in southeast Louisiana. They settled on saving cats after visiting local shelters and asking, ‘What can we do to have the biggest effect on euthanasia rates?” The answer was always the same: Educate people about the need to spay and neuter their pet cats. Educate people about the need to spay and neuter feral cats, too.
“Most shelters were killing five cats for every dog they euthanized,” Chiche said. “That number has stayed about the same over the years.”
Shortly before Katrina, the nonprofit group was getting ready to open a low-cost, high-volume spay-neuter clinic, but the storm tore the roof off the building and destroyed everything inside.
It flooded Chiche’s house in Metairie, too, and she and her husband ended up in a FEMA trailer in rural Mississippi. The property included a 17,000 square-foot building that would become the SpayMart cat sanctuary.
Eventually, the FEMA trailer was replaced by a double-wide, and Chiche has been there ever since, caring for hundreds of cats. She brings adoptable cats to the SpayMart Thrift Shop on Veterans Boulevard in Metairie, adopts out senior cats to senior humans, and has a Community Kitten Foster Program in southeast Louisiana, where volunteers foster litters of kittens until they’re ready to be adopted.
She takes in special-needs cats, older cats rescued from hoarder cases, cats left behind when people move out of apartments, kittens found in parking lots. She has always told me she wants to keep her numbers at “no more than 250,” but when I ask her how many she has at the sanctuary, she usually admits to “almost 300.”
I knew she would be rescuing cats after the August flooding, and I was happy to learn that Patty Hegwood had been with her. The two animal advocates are longtime friends.
“Patty brought money and support from Best Friends, and I told her, ‘Why don’t you and I get in the car and see where the help is needed most,’” Chiche said.
Hegwood was the business partner of Dr. Rollie Norris at Ark Animal Hospital on Jefferson Highway until 10 years ago. She left Metairie in 2006 and went to work for Best Friends Animal Society in Angel Canyon, Utah, so she could “help animals on a national level.”
After the historic flooding, she came back to Louisiana to assess the situation.
“She talked them into letting her come,” Chiche said.
Everywhere the two women went, they were moved by the devastation.
“It just pulled at your heart,” Chiche said. “The shelter in Denham Springs was completely destroyed. It looked like after Katrina. The Companion Animal Alliance in East Baton Rouge got it really, really bad, too.”
They visited one shelter and rescue group after another and left behind donations of dog and cat food, bowls, blankets, leashes and other supplies.
“I had put out a plea through the Thrift Shop,” Chiche said.
As they went from place to place, they saw members of other familiar New Orleans area rescue groups, like ARNO, the St. Francis Animal Sanctuary, and Zeus’s Place. And as they made their way west, they met others who shared their mission.
“Like Cat Haven and Companion Animal Alliance and Acadiana Animal Aid,” she said.
It wasn’t until they got to their last stop on Aug. 28 — the St. Landry Parish Animal Control in Opelousas — that Chiche felt the full impact of the disaster.
“I’d never seen so many dogs in my life. It was just row after row after row of them,” she said.
The St. Landry shelter takes in dogs and cats from several rural areas where strays are handled by police departments, and there’s no other animal control.
“It’s just an endless stream of dogs and cats, puppies and kittens coming in,” Chiche said.
She had already grabbed six older cats from Lamar-Dixon that day — pets whose families could no longer keep them because they had lost their homes — but when she entered the cat holding area at St. Landry, she knew she had to take more.
“The whole area was full, and cats were spilling out into the annex,” she said. “It was mommas and babies and half-grown kittens. You see those little faces, and your heart just breaks.”
She started walking up and down the rows, looking for the friendliest cats, the prettiest kittens, the most adoptable ones.
“I spent 30 minutes trying to make selections,” she said.
Then she spied a pitiful tabby kitten with a look of total defeat on his face.
“He had his head down, and one arm was hanging outside the cage,” Chiche said. “He had obviously given up hope.”
She told Hegwood “I don’t think I can do this,” and Hegwood said, “Do you want me to pick?”
“I told Patty, ‘No, I think I’m just going to take them all,’” Chiche said.
The room got very quiet, and the director said, “What did you say?” wondering if she had heard correctly. And then the director was crying and Chiche was crying, and they were loading up 59 cats and kittens. She named the sad little kitten “Reggie,” and he is now a beautiful, playful 5-month-old ready to be adopted.
“I named every single one of them,” Chiche said. “They’re already all of our children.”
When I asked her how many cats she’d have at the sanctuary after the 10 left for their new homes in Oregon, she said, “Over 300.”
But that’s all right. She did what Reggie’s sweet little face inspired her to do.
What heartens Chiche is knowing how many other rescues in south Louisiana are passionate about saving animals.
“That’s the little silver lining in all the sadness,” she said. “I met so many people who are doing what we’re doing. We’re making progress. It’s just going to take some time.”
If you would like to donate to Spaymart to help with the funds for caring for the cats – from every day care to medical costs, please go to their donation page of their web site, here, to donate. No amount is too small!