We always say we’ll be back.

When we leave home for the day, we tell our families, our dogs, our cats, our horses that we’ll see them tonight.

But sometimes we don’t come back when we say we will. Or when we get back, they aren’t there. That happened a lot after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. It happened with Duncan.

Duncan had moved to New Orleans on a big adventure. 

His college student, Kristin, took him with her to Tulane University from Oregon. They jumped in shows together. He was a horse, and she was his girl. 

That was days before Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people and tens of thousands of animals.

Kristin was one of thousands of people who couldn’t get back into the city when they planned. She and her father worried about Duncan. And their worries led them to contact the Louisiana State University Equine Health Studies program. 

Rustin Moore, BS ’86, Animal and Veterinary Science, was a veterinary surgeon at the top of his game who led the LSU horse program. He took calls like the many from Kristin’s father looking for a horse after the storm. Could they find him? Could they get him food? Could they rescue him? Please. 

So the staff set up a Horse Hurricane Helpline, and Moore organized volunteers, veterinarians and borrowed trailers into an operation that mapped horse locations and every day brought survivors back to an expo center outside of Baton Rouge. 

In the weeks after Katrina – and right on its heels, Hurricane Rita – Moore and his band of vets and volunteers rescued almost 500 horses. It was the largest horse rescue operation in the nation. 

And somehow, Duncan was one of those rescued. 

The stable where the bay horse lived was hard to reach because standing water kept the area impassable. A helicopter flyover yielded nothing. In a book about the rescue, “Horses of the Storm,” then- LSU staff member Ky Evan Mortensen wrote that to have escaped Duncan would have had to swim. Swim to get out of the stable. Swim without food through refuse and flotsam to get through the churning water. 

Moore’s command center kept track of the last known location of missing horses with red sticky note arrows on a map posted to the wall. Two weeks into the rescue, Duncan’s red arrow was still on the board. 

Moore got an email from Kristin with a picture of Duncan all shiny on competition day. The group took the photo and compared it to every horse they had. They stopped at one horse that had been found grazing on a levee surrounded by water. He was sun bleached, and he was skinny, but he was Duncan. And he was going home.

Lost and Found 

When Rustin Moore first saw the damage to New Orleans, he sent money. He didn’t know what else to do. 

The native West Virginian’s chance to act came when he got a call to ride with a few volunteers on their way to rescue horses trapped in the floodwaters. The West Virginia University alumnus showed up at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, La., and soon realized that this rescue needed something more than another vet. It needed a plan. And he was good at making plans. 

“I really had a sense of obligation in that there were these people and animals that if we didn’t help, help might not come quick enough for them,” Moore said. 

“There were these people and animals that if we didn’t help, help might not come quick enough for them.” — Rustin Moore

He started in shock, thinking, “What can I do? I’m only one person.” 

And then he brought people together, gave them a structure and got to work. 

In the 10 or so weeks that followed, Moore, his colleagues, students, staff and volunteers – about 500 people in all – followed a routine. At the end of his normal work day with horse patients and managing the university’s horse program, Moore would check in with the 24-hour volunteer helpline. When not answering calls himself, he’d look at the information received that day and match it with the teams of volunteers and available horse trailers, making sure each team had a vet to treat injured horses, tranquilize frightened ones and euthanize those that wouldn’t make it. 

At 5 a.m. he’d go to the Expo Center to send out the teams for the day and get back to the command center – his office – to plan the next day. Every day, he didn’t know if the teams would return with any horses. And he had no idea when it would end.

Horse in flood 
It took Moore’s group more than two months to rescue, identify and reunite horses with their families. Photograph submitted.

“I didn’t know if it would be 10 horses, 50 horses, 500 horses,” he said. “I didn’t realize it would grow into weeks of this and nor did I know that Rita would hit two or three weeks later and add another 80-100 horses to rescue from a completely different part of the state. 

“It became all-consuming.” 

Sometimes he wouldn’t know the next day’s plan until 11 at night. And one night he returned home, glanced at his kitchen table and saw the birthday card lying there. 

That day was his birthday. And he’d forgotten. 

Through the rescue, he saw a lot of good. He saw people calling in constantly to donate feed and supplies for the horses, and volunteers throwing themselves into saving as many horses as they could. And when they came across other animals, they couldn’t leave them behind. They brought in 300 dogs as well as cats, birds, rabbits, potbellied pigs, goats and iguanas. 

Moore also saw a lot of bad. The teams were able to save nearly 500 horses. But to do that, they had to see the dead, the horses who had been trapped in barns or became entangled in trees and drowned. And that affected the whole group. 

Between taking calls from distraught owners who didn’t know if they’d ever see their beloved animals again to seeing and smelling dead animals every day, the people were hurting and giving all they had on little sleep. 

At the end of those weeks, the group left the Expo Center for good, having found the original owners of all but one of the horses they saved. 

Rustin Moore with a horse
Rustin Moore now serves as executive director of the Veterinary Medical Center, among other roles, at The Ohio State University, where he is advancing research and service to animals in the state.

Ten Years Later 

When we as a nation looked at Katrina in the rearview mirror, we saw a lot of room for change, especially in disaster evacuation and rescue policies surrounding animals. One of the most notable changes was the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, a federal law passed in 2006 that requires states to include pets in their evacuation and response plans. 

“There were people in New Orleans that refused to be rescued because the people that were rescuing them would not take their animal – their pet – with them,” Moore said. “And so those laws changed. They rescue the person and the dog and the cat or whatever. I think that’s useful because it will help people get out of there in time or to be rescued. 

“Many times a pet doesn’t just mean a dog or a cat, it could be a pet pig, a pet horse. Sometimes that’s the only real part of a family a person has. I don’t think people really understood that. And I think there’s more awareness around that now.” 

Moore is now at The Ohio State University where he oversees the Veterinary Medical Center and is an administrator in the College of Veterinary Medicine. On a snowy day this winter in Columbus, Ohio, he thought back to the rescue almost 10 years ago. He says it was one of his life’s “most exhausting yet enriching experiences.” 

“I would never want to go through it again,” he says. “Once was enough. I would never not want to have gone through it because it was a great learning experience. And I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone else.” 

The City That Lost Its Leg 

There was one particular pony rescued in Katrina, not by Moore’s group, but by a woman named Kaye Harris. 

Harris, who’d lost her house in Katrina and spent weeks after rescuing people and animals, rescued and adopted Molly, who belongs to the Pony of the Americas breed. 

After rescue operations shut down, a rescued dog that had been on its own in the city for a couple months after the storm attacked 15-year-old Molly, biting her in the face, belly and legs. Harris’ vet stitched her up. But her right front leg felt cold. It was dying. And ponies and horses with three legs generally can’t survive long. 

Molly was smart, and Harris believed Molly could make it if she were given a chance at surgery and a prosthetic, an incredibly rare occurrence in horses and ponies, with just a few known cases worldwide. 

“Molly is sort of a parallel for New Orleans. It might not be the same, but you can be better ... you can recover.” — Kaye Harris

So Harris argued with her vet, a lot. Molly could do it, she said. She finally persuaded the vet. And the vet called a surgeon she knew, Rusty Moore, on his cell phone. 

“I think she said on the phone, ‘I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I have a pony and the owner wants to do a prosthesis,’” Moore recalls. “Of course I’m thinking, ‘OK, yeah, sure, right.’” 

The problem wasn’t the amputation or even getting a custom prosthetic for a pony. If Molly couldn’t adapt to having a fabricated fourth leg, she wouldn’t ultimately survive. 

Moore said he’d see Molly, watch her for a couple of days, and then he’d decide. But he’d only do it if Molly could persuade him. 

And she did. She was small, she was smart, she alternated lying on each side – which would prevent sores – and she had a healthy appetite. 

Moore did the surgery, Molly recovered and she’s now 25 years old. She survived, and then some. 

Harris took Molly to a children’s hospital once she had her prosthetic limb just to see if she could make some kids happy. Molly, who Harris says is a complete diva at home, walked up to a boy who almost never stopped shaking and looked him in the eye. The boy went still and held Molly’s gaze. 

That was the beginning of Molly’s attention and devotion to the scores of hospitals, camps and nursing homes she’s visited over the years. Moore was on some of Molly’s visits to Ohio and he was struck by how Molly would behave with ill children and her fellow amputees – humans at their most vulnerable. 

“You can tell she makes a difference in their lives, shows them courage, shows them they can go on,” Moore said. “It doesn’t matter that they look different than somebody else, and that to me is what has been the most important part of this whole story.” 

To Harris, Molly is a sign of what happened to New Orleans when Katrina tore apart the city – what happened when people were injured, lost homes, lost pets and gained memories they’d rather not have. 

“Molly is sort of a parallel for New Orleans,” Harris says. “New Orleans got its leg chopped off. It might not be the same, but you can be better in some ways. You can recover, and in Molly’s case, well physically we’re not going to say she’s better, but she’s better in the sense that she’s creating such a huge impact on the world.” 

“She’s got an iron will, and a will to survive,” Harris said. “She’s not mean about it; she still gives back to people.” 

And Harris thinks that to do this, Molly needed Moore. 

Moore’s never done another surgery like Molly’s before or since. Harris says that while Molly’s case is famous – it appeared in The New York Times and in a children’s book – Moore has helped horses in less widely known but important ways such as contributing to research on laminitis, a common and serious hoof ailment in the horse family. 

Molly and Duncan and hundreds of other horses, ponies and mules rescued around New Orleans were saved because a towheaded boy from Spencer, W.Va., was born caring about animals, and he used his considerable skill to do it. 

Molly
Whenever Molly visits humans facing a disability, her story of resilience inspires them to keep going. Photo submitted.

He was there for our animals when we couldn’t be. And he did it in part because he’s a West Virginian. 

“Being a hard worker, being honest, really caring about people and animals and trying to help them – I think those were the things I took away from those 18 years living at home in Roane County and being surrounded by the people that really helped shape me.”