I heard the levee broke. I said, “Lord have mercy, what about Bandit?”
— Malvin Cavalier
“I often think about that moment, how J.J. must have been, how scared he was,” says Jessie James Pullins. “I know I should have been there for him at that moment and I wasn’t there.” Walking through the wreckage of his home in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, Pullins imagines his dog left behind as he evacuated 20 human family members. “We started out with nothing,” he says of J.J., “We grew together.” Now, after the storm, Pullins wants to find J.J., to reunite his family.
Pullins’ story and others like it are recounted in Mine, released by Film Movement in theaters last month and premiering this week as part of PBS’ Independent Lens (also available on iTunes). Watching Pullins — or 87-year-old Malvin Cavalier or Linda Charles — looking over a ruined home and lamenting a lost dog, you might think you know where Mine is going: some pets will be lost, some will be found, their stories rendered in handheld shots of wrecked homes, close-ups of dog faces, and a bluesy soundtrack that makes local stories feel universal.
To be sure, Mine does some of this. As anxious owners describe their beloved pets and pre-storm photos show happier days. Owners recount their impossible decisions: prohibited from taking their pets to the Superdome or on rescue vehicles, focused on saving young children and grandmothers in wheelchairs, they abandoned heir pets: “We left 50 pounds of food for the dog and a lot of water,” says Charles. Cavalier remembers, “I said, ‘Bandit, I’m gonna be back in a couple of days, just try to hold on.'” Georgette Morgan describes her efforts to locate her mother Gloria’s black lab, Murphy: “My mom would have stayed there and died with her dog,” she says, but the National Guard took her out, even as she protested.
Alongside these initial tragedies, the film includes rescuers’ experiences. “I think the worst part of it was to see the newsmen going by and commenting on it and photographing it and continuing,” says Karen O’Toole, a film production coordinator from Arizona. “You’re thinking, ‘Go back, go back.'” But news crews did not go back. They noted the dogs and cats left behind, stranded on porches and yelping from windows, and went on to find other stories, people lost and homes destroyed. With devastation so overwhelming and ongoing, the plight of pets was not a priority.
But O’Toole and others watching television and the internet during late August and early September 2005 made other sorts of decisions. “It was a boots on the ground situation,” she recalls. “I knew that my boots had to be on this ground immediately.” She and many others, including Jane Garrison, an animal advocate from California, made their way to New Orleans with the express purpose of rescuing animals. “The barking would be coming from every home, every apartment,” Garrison recalls. They took up the immediate task first, going from house to house and picking up pets, leaving them in increasingly crowded makeshift shelters, without a system to record or publicize which animals were where.
In some case, the film points out — almost as an afterthought — the hurricane was not their first traumatic experience. Jane Garrison says, “The majority of dogs we rescued were pit bulls, not spayed or neutered, their faces scarred from fighting.” O’Toole adds, “In some ways, Katrina was the best thing that happened to some animals, because their true lives, their miserable lives, were uncovered by Katrina.” Though Mine includes photos of these ravaged dogs, their beaten faces and broken bodies, it doesn’t show how any of these dogs were saved, rehabilitated, or adopted. Neither does the film indicate that work has been done to shut down dogfighting operations.
If the movie doesn’t follow through on this dilemma — which has everything to do with how dog owners conceive themselves and their animals, whether ownership is a responsibility or business — it does present other aspects in more complex dimensions. The specter of dogfighting is one component in perceptions of owners who left their dogs as across-the-board “bad owners.” Charles worries, “I think I’m being judged because we had to leave the dog.” Informed that her German shepherd, Precious, has been adopted and renamed by a family who doesn’t want to return her, Charles understands, “It may be race, a question of rich or poor, maybe they just got attached to the dog.” Still, she asserts, “It’s your family.”
The inadvertent breakup of families is well-documented following the hurricanes. And, like so many human survivors, animals were shipped all over the country, accepted by 500 shelters, making their reunions more difficult. In these complications, the film finds a more compelling focus, the question of pet ownership. The concept is legal and emotional, of course, but also philosophical and moral. Many animals are adopted by well-intentioned new owners, told by shelters in places as far-flung as Florida, Texas, and California that their new pets are theirs.
As debates become public — or at least as they affect two parties who believe dogs are theirs — aggrieved individuals and their representatives worry that claims are premised (if not supported) by broader cultural and political quandaries. New owners see themselves claims as functions of Susan Bauer, working from Ontario, Canada, devotes herself to bringing Cavalier and Bandit back together. As the dog’s new owners resist, she seeks legal help. “All the other stuff, racism and classism,” Bauer says, “That’s always there. But this is a bigger problem, the man and his dog. To me, [their separation is] the end result of a lot of decisions that were made far, far away.”
That’s not to say that adoptive families are “bad,” either. Tiffany Mansfield is attached to her rescued dog, Joey. “I believe he came into our little family to help me,” she says, then going on to explain her own recent tragedies. Her claim is real, she says. When she saw him in the shelter, she felt an immediate connection: “He was mine.”
But Joey was also Max, with an identification tag that named his owner in New Orleans, Victor Marino. At first thrilled to find his dog is alive, Marino is soon dismayed to learn that Tiffany and her husband have no intention of returning him. “He kept calling him ‘his’ and ‘mine,'” says Mansfield. “That didn’t help his case at all: he’s mine.” Cut to Marino, alone at home in St. Bernard Parish. “Bottom line, he’s still mine.” As Mine tracks this and other disputes, some resolved and others not, the one recurring point is this: no line is ever quite the bottom.