Four years ago when filmmaker Geralyn Pezanoski, 38, adopted lost Katrina dog Nola, a pointer-boxer mix, little did she know it would be a precursor to a documentary that chronicled several of the 15,000 animals and their owners made homeless by the devastating hurricane.
"Eight weeks after the hurricane, hundreds of animals were hanging on for their lives," says Pezanoski. "People felt the call."
"Mine" — which won an Audience Award and was deemed the "best movie" by Entertainment Weekly at the 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival — was more of an intuitive project than a well-planned documentary. "I had been to New Orleans to do a PSA for the Humane Society, and I had also fostered a dog when the original owners did not come forward," says Pezanoski. "I was wrapping up this PSA when I saw more photos of the animals and how terrible the conditions were.”
Pezanoski didn’t have a concrete plan when she returned to the city, but her story unfolded as more drama unfurled — and there was plenty of it. Long after the people had been saved, thousands of animals remained prisoners in their homes, hiding in plain sight on roofs, nestled in attics and sequestered in bathrooms by their owners, with scant water and food. A group of dedicated volunteers descended on the ravaged city to save these pets.
Animal lovers stepped forward to adopt unclaimed pets, and in all, some 15,000 were rescued and sent out of state to people from all parts of the country, says Pezanoski. "[For] as much heartbreak that came out of Katrina," she says, "what stood out for me was the compassion I saw from people, starting with the rescuers. The government failed them, and then you saw all these individuals answer the call. Compassion moved people to go in and make a difference."
But soon a third act emerged. As the weeks passed, residents returned to their neighborhoods and destroyed homes and sought out their pets. "In times of total loss, pets become this thing people want to hold onto," says Pezanoski.
While about 3,000 original owners were reunited with their pets, for others, tensions rose between them and the people who had fostered the abandoned animals — resulting in an enduring piece of journalism chronicled by Pezanoski and her camera. One of her subjects, Jessie Pullins, was just reunited with his dog in June. "He stuck with it," she says. "Hundreds of families were looking. It’s [been] four years; most have given up and moved on. I know of a handful of cases of people still looking."
Pezanoski says she wasn’t an animal person prior to doing the film and feels the documentary, to be shown again this month at a theater in Martha's Vineyard and at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, has a broader message. "It’s such a moving story about humanity, not just about pets," she says. "Animal lovers love the film, but its not limited to them."
She even gained something from the experience herself. As a foster parent of a Katrina pet, she could empathize with those who gave up their foster animals so they could be reunited with their New Orleans owners.
"You go into it thinking there’s a good guy and a villain, and I realized there isn’t one or the other. They were all trying to do the right thing," she says. "They all loved animals."