Large white crates inched slowly down a black conveyer belt and into the arms of animal aid workers Sunday night as 160 dogs arrived from Louisiana.
After weeks of hoping, days of networking and hours of waiting, the four-legged Hurricane Katrina evacuees found a new home in Arizona with the help of the Arizona Humane Society and the Arizona Air National Guard.
"This has been one of the most fulfilling days in my life," said Cheryl Naumann, president and CEO of the Arizona Humane Society, as she watched the arrival at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
"These animals have suffered so much . . . I still can’t believe this is happening," she said, wiping tears from her eyes.
It almost didn’t.
Challenges arose. Train rides would take too long and require too many staff members. Busing regulations prohibited transporting the animals.
And then the Humane Society contacted the Arizona Air National Guard.
Capt. Paul Aguirre, spokesman for the Guard, said two empty KC-135 tankers would be returning from Louisiana and have enough room to transport dozens of animals.
And so it began.
Two gray KC-135 tankers flew into Louisiana late Sunday afternoon, delivering a group of New Mexico National Guard members and setting to work loading crates and securing them to the floor of the plane.
Kim Noetzel, spokeswoman for the humane society, said Louisiana only sent dogs in an effort to reduce their numbers in animal shelters in the area.
By 5 p.m. Arizona time, the planes had set off for the Valley. The dogs created only a slight smell in the plane, said Jeff Kellow of Queen Creek, a guardsman aboard the aircraft.
After a few barks, the dogs settled. They touched down at the airportclose to 8 p.m.
"Operation Noah’s Ark has landed," Naumann said.
One by one the dogs were loaded into a truck. A golden retriever with a green collar and cheery demeanor was found in St. Bernard Parish, La. "Good health," the paper on his crate says. "Has rabies shots." A gray, shaggy Lhasa apso was carried out of its crate because it appeared to be ill.
"They’re all very happy and barking," said Frank Isom, a veterinarian with the humane society.
The dogs will undergo health evaluations and be scanned for identifying microchips and fitted with new collars at the humane society’s shelter.
They’ll get regular walks, lots of attention and lots of love — something Isom says the dogs need after such a traumatizing event.
Photographs and information about where the dogs were found will be posted on ww.PetFinder.com, a national Web site for lost animals.
For four weeks, the society’s volunteers will take care of the dogs and wait for family members to find their lost pets and claim them. After that, the dogs will be placed for adoption.
But the biggest obstacle the society now has to overcome is the effect on the nonprofit’s bank account.
The weeks spent in Louisiana racked up "thousands of dollars" in overtime and traveling expenses, Naumann said.
They need money to continue to take care of the animals. They need gently used blankets, sheets and towels to comfort the animals.
But most of all, they want to reunite lost pets with their owners.
"A lot of animals have tags and microchips," Kellow said. "So hopefully the owners will find them."