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Dogs home at last thanks to a caring spirit

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published April 9, 2007


photo
Gene Gunn gets a wet kiss from Pearl, one of the dogs he found under a mobile home in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. He says he knew he'd find the owner someday.
[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
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Pepe, left, and Miss Pearl are going to be reunited with their owner 20 months after they were separated during Hurricane Katrina.

As the 20-foot surge from Hurricane Katrina soaked Pearlington, Miss., in 2005, Georgia Wilburn, her two teenage granddaughters and a friend rode out the storm in the cab of a pickup truck.

When the waters receded, Wilburn's mobile home and all her possessions had disappeared, including her three dogs - a pit bullterrier-Labrador mix, a Chihuahua and a dachshund mix.

"I didn't think we would ever see them again," said Wilburn, 65, who now lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. "We were afraid they had drowned."

Little did Wilburn know that nearly 20 months later a man from St. Petersburg named Gene Gunn would prove her wrong and planned to return one of her beloved pets to her Easter weekend.

The story of how Gunn came to rescue, care for and eventually return a Katrina canine comes along with another high-profile Katrina case in the bay area concerning a St. Bernard and a shepherd mix that were rescued from Louisiana. In that case, the original owners have filed a lawsuit to reclaim their pets after the post-Katrina adopters refused to relinquish them. A Pinellas County jury will likely resolve that case this summer.

* * *

Gunn's role as canine rescuer was by happenstance.

After days of watching Hurricane Katrina's destruction on TV, Gunn, a 36-year-old research compliance analyst at Tampa General Hospital, rented a sport utility vehicle, loaded it with supplies from Sam's Club and headed to the stricken area.

He didn't have a plan, per se. He left behind his wife, Melissa, who was three months pregnant with their first child. He just headed for Mississippi.

Arriving in Pearlington, 40 miles east of New Orleans, 10 days after the storm, he found that the town of about 2,000 had been nearly wiped away.

"It was amazing. It was like a bomb went off. I had never seen anything like it," Gunn said.

For 10 days, he shuttled supplies. With his laptop and a wireless Internet connection, Gunn relayed messages to loved ones of survivors he met. On one of his trips through Pearlington's demolished streets, Gunn found three dogs.

The dogs were underneath a destroyed mobile home on Keller Street. They were hungry. One was a bit skittish. Gunn lured them with Vienna sausages.

A day later, as he prepared to return to his wife in St. Petersburg, Gunn brought the dogs with him. He promised himself he would keep them until the owners were found, rather than hand them over to a shelter.

"I knew at some point I would find her," Gunn said. "And to say, 'Oh, I gave your dogs away,' I just couldn't imagine."

Melissa Gunn pretty much expected her husband to come home with dogs. Even in St. Petersburg, Gunn would bring home strays and find homes for them.

Wilburn's pit bull mix died of unknown causes soon after arriving in Florida. Gunn gave the Chihuahua the name Pepe; the dachshund-mix, Pearl. Pearl would eventually have five puppies, which Gunn found homes for.

The rescued dogs joined a household that already had four dogs; and their adjustment left a carpet ruined.

Three weeks ago, with his wife again pregnant, Gunn decided it was time to take action. He placed an advertisement on the Internet and was soon contacted by Christiane Biagi of New York.

Biagi, 65, and a group of about 10 people recently formed an Internet group dubbed Katrina Animal Reunion Team. They comb through online records looking for rescued animals, hoping to reunite them with their original owners.

Biagi asked Gunn to let them try and find the dogs' original owners. Within a few days, the group tracked Wilburn down. Little did Gunn know, the dogs' original owner had briefly been a Tampa Bay neighbor in Largo.

* * *

The days and months after Katrina were a nightmare for Wilburn and her family. First they traveled to Bay St. Louis, Miss., where they camped in front of an apartment complex on wet, salvaged mattresses laid on a concrete slab that was once a building's base. They didn't have food. They couldn't bathe.

"We just tried to wash off with water we found in the yard," Wilburn said.

The family left Mississippi and came to Largo in late September 2005, where they stayed for about a month. They searched for their dogs on the Internet but had no idea that their pets were in St. Petersburg.

A week before Halloween 2005, Wilburn and her granddaughters went to Chattanooga, where they live today in a small apartment. Wilburn said she still has deep bruises on her body from being hit by flying debris. The sound of heavy rain still frightens her.

Because of the size of the apartment, Wilburn will only be able to have one of the dogs. Gunn is driving to Tennessee this weekend with Pearl, the dachsund-mix Wilburn calls Hanna. The Chihuahua will be given to a Gunn family friend in St. Petersburg who wanted the dog from the time she saw him.

Wilburn and her granddaughters are grateful to Gunn.

"I'm happy," said Amanda Crosby, 17, Wilburn's granddaughter, who rode out the storm. "I just hope she still remembers us, and I'm glad somebody picked her up and took care of her. I'm happy that they are willing to give them back."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 9, 2007, 01:24:56]


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