Twin sisters save furriest survivors of Katrina

Published 4:33 pm Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Two sisters, twins from Minnesota, have saved hundreds of animals from death in Jackson County by manning a transport and adoption system that has found homes in the Midwest willing to take on Katrina victims.

Many of the dogs and cats had to be relinquished by their owners for one reason or another or were found stray after the storm.

Claudia Beckman and Coleen Jefferson, both 45, had wanted to help animals since their childhood and fulfilled that calling in the weeks after Katrina.

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They came to the Coast for a week and wound up staying for 3 1/2 months — delivering food and helping with animals.

They wound up in Jackson County because there was such a need and the county seemed forgotten, they said. And they are still helping there.

They had a hand in a shipment of 64 animals on Aug. 15 and will come themselves to transport another group by the end of the month.

Barbara McKenzie, with Gulf Coast SPCA, who helps prepare the animals for transportation and houses volunteers, said the women have pulled off a miracle over time and are still at it.

Bill Richman, director of the Jackson County Animal Shelter, jokingly calls them “double trouble.”

“Absolutely they are a godsend,” he said. “And they are so good to deal with. They do what they can to stay out of our way and not disrupt shelter operations. The world needs more people like that.”

The women work with more than a dozen animal rescue groups in their home region. The animals have either a foster home or an adopted home waiting when they begin the trip from the coast.

The process starts with McKenzie sending photos of eligible animals to the twins via e-mail. It includes finding money for truck rental and gas, organizing and cleaning crates, issuing tags and shots, and setting up volunteers along the long road to Minnesota who will help walk and care for the animals during travel breaks.

There have been some characters in the mix of primarily dogs that the twins have rescued.

Pugsley, a pug, had spent his eight years on a shrimp boat, Beckman said. A pug rescue group is working with him, but she said she thinks his foster owners have become attached and aren’t likely to give him up.

“He came with the first group and has some issues to work on,” she said. “He was recently neutered and is not used to being with other dogs.

“He wasn’t too keen on dog food either,” she said, and they wondered what he had been fed on the boat.

Turns out he likes bread and cat food. She said there is also a new type of fish-bait dog food that they’re going to try.

“He’s a hoot,” she said.

Pugsley’s owners didn’t have anything after the storm, she said: “It wasn’t their fault.”

Beckman said she has noticed that with storm warnings, pet owner relinquish rates go up.

Beckman said someone having to give up a pet is the most heartbreaking situation.

“But some people just can’t keep a dog in a FEMA trailer,” she said.

The other thing that breaks her heart is not having the finances or space to take them all.

“You want to give them all a second chance,” she said.

She has handled a variety, from pure-bred older dogs to mixed-breed litters of puppies. They have a vet service and can give the animals a thorough going-over and treatment if they are ill.

She said it was funny to watch coast dogs and cats the first time they encountered snow.

“They would not touch it,” she said.

Both women had careers before their new calling. Beckman was a Marine and Jefferson was a firefighter.

“But we’ve always helped with animals, since we were old enough to walk,” Beckman said. “After Katrina, we wanted to help so much. We called places but they didn’t need us.”

Instead of giving up, they set up their own system, found donations, packed their car and trailer and came.