I've been wading through Spike Lee's four-hour Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, for the last several nights, so I thought I'd seen everything there was to see. But now here's Dark Water Rising, Mike Shiley's documentary about the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 pets that were left behind when New Orleans' residents headed for higher ground. Even after the hurricane had come and gone, FEMA wouldn't allow those who'd hunkered down and stayed in their homes to escape with their four-legged friends. And the result was an animal lover's nightmare - thousands upon thousands of dogs and cats, many of them locked inside the house or chained up in the backyard, with little or no food and water, for weeks on end.
Organizations like the Humane Society, along with an army of volunteers, came to the rescue, and Shiley faithfully documents their heroic efforts. But there was red tape involved, and Shiley also spends time with a renegade outfit based outside an abandoned Winn-Dixie grocery store, their anger mounting as time runs out. Then things get even messier. Many of the dogs are pit bulls, their bodies covered with the teeth marks of other pit bulls, the owners having trained them for a blood sport that was apparently very popular in the Crescent City. Most of the dogs hadn't been neutered and showed other signs of neglect or abuse. And who would want to return them to their pre-Katrina lives?
Custody battles have ensued, which Shiley doesn't go into very much. But he can hardly be accused of turning a blind eye to what went on down there. There's even a heartbreaking visit to a middle school where a group of dogs was allegedly used for target practice and other atrocities by one or more members of the New Orleans police department. Dark Water Rising contains some horrific images, and what's especially painful to realize is how little of that horror came from the dark water rising. Long after the storm had subsided, New Orleans still wasn't fit for a dog.