SAN DIEGO — Hundreds of dogs and cats left stranded by Hurricane Katrina are being flown by chartered commercial jets to shelters and homes in California by wealthy donors, including a dog-loving Texas oil billionaire and his wife.
Aboard the Boeing 737-800 "flying animal shelter," as one flight attendant dubbed a recent airlift, dogs and cats whimpered in crates strapped into the passenger seats. Some were given sponge baths, cuddled and allowed to trot up to the cockpit. One nervous dog sat in first class.
"It was the best flight I ever had ... the first flight where I kissed and hugged all the passengers. They were so sweet and desperate for affection and help," said Kimberly Wnuk, one of six flight attendants and pilots who donated their time for the airlift.
Sunday's flight from Baton Rouge, La. -- the first -- brought 80 dogs and cats to San Diego and San Francisco. Another plane arrived Tuesday in San Francisco with 152 animals, and still another flight is expected to land later this week in Los Angeles.
The airlifts -- each costing about $45,000 -- were sponsored by Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens and his wife, Madeleine, part of a larger effort by animal welfare groups to find homes across the country for animals in crowded shelters in Louisiana and Mississippi.
More than 2,000 animals, including 1,300 dogs, 400 birds and several hundred cats, are at the main shelter in the New Orleans area. Rescue crews are picking up several hundred more daily. Officials say as many as 50,000 may still be stranded.
Though some pets have been reunited with their owners, the space crunch for those who haven't has forced animal welfare groups to seek shelters elsewhere. Not enough families in Louisiana are able to adopt the animals, officials say.
"We want to move as many animals out of state as possible," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which is managing the disaster relief efforts for animals.
So far, more than 150 animals have been trucked to Houston. Hundreds more are scheduled to be transported to South Florida and Michigan.
The largest operation -- dubbed Operation Orphans of the Storm, Pet Rescue Katrina -- is being run with the Pickenses' assistance.
Madeleine Pickens said she was inspired to act by seeing television images of abandoned animals, dogs paddling futilely in the flooded waters and evacuees being forced to leave their pets behind.
Her husband, she said, has given $6 million to the American Red Cross for general disaster relief efforts. The aid for animal welfare will bring joy to the evacuees who were pet owners, she said.
"There's a lot of people saying, 'Gosh, I hope someone is taking care of my dog,' " she said.
Bill McLaughlin, a Marin County real estate developer who has been seeking donors for more airlifts, said not enough was being done to save the animals.
"This was just driving me nuts and I didn't see anybody doing anything," he said. "People there have lost enough. The only lifeline they have left is the pets."
Like other rescue operations, the pet lifts have met with delays.
The relocations have been stalled by health considerations -- animals must be vaccinated and checked for diseases. And officials in some Louisiana parishes want to keep the pets in the state for at least 30 days in hopes of reuniting them with their owners.
Faced with deteriorating conditions, however, some parishes, including Orleans Parish, this week authorized the relocations. Owners will still be given 30 days to claim their pets from families offering temporary shelter, and the animals' photographs are being posted on such websites as www.petfinder.com.
To prepare the planes, crews from Continental Airlines covered the floors and seats with plastic sheets for the four-hour flight from Baton Rouge to California. In the kennels were beagles and hounds, pit bull mixes and Labradors, German shepherds, a golden retriever and gaggles of puppies and kittens.
"Believe me, it was a very odd scene to see all the seats on a Continental 737 filled with dogs and cats," Pacelle said. "It was quite amusing, but also very gratifying."
After takeoff, attendants took some of the dogs and cats out of their crates to let them stretch their legs. Many were flea-ridden or suffering from dehydration and wounds. Flight attendants cleaned some kittens.
Some of the dogs barked and whimpered when first brought in the cabin. But most calmed down as they frolicked in the aisles or were swept up in the arms of crew members. "It's like they owned the joint. It was like a breath of fresh air for them," said Wnuk, the flight attendant.
Some dogs were taken to greet the pilots, including one black and tan dachshund. "He jumped up and put his paws up. I could tell he was an aviator at heart," said Larry Stephenson, a co-pilot on Tuesday's flight. "I'm going to adopt him if I can."
The operators of animal shelters in San Diego and Marin counties said they have many people willing to take in the animals, either for adoption or foster care, but are seeking more willing to help.
"They've been jostled around and bounced and flown and put in crates for hours at a time, and when they got here they were neat, sweet, loving and obedient," said John Van Zante, a spokesman for the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, which took in 50 animals. "They just couldn't give enough kisses and be patted on the head enough."