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Saturday, September 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Oprah pet drama in New Orleans left out key facts

The Dallas Morning News

NEW ORLEANS — Puppies and celebrities can be a powerful combination. Especially for a dramatic television rescue from a flooded hospital.

Witness a recent segment of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" from the devastated Gulf Coast.

Viewers watched actor Matthew McConaughey heroically rescuing stranded animals — and the doctor who stayed behind with them — from the flooded Lindy Boggs Medical Center in New Orleans.

The segment glossed over one key point: The animals were being rescued anyway.

"Matthew's search for stories of people that he could help led him to an abandoned hospital in New Orleans," Oprah Winfrey told viewers. "Inside were beloved pets that families had been forced to leave behind during this evacuation. One man vowed to keep them alive. And Matthew went to help him."

What she didn't tell viewers is that McConaughey and the Oprah crew jumped into the effort after two Dallas companies already had begun the rescue: Tenet Healthcare and Aviation Services Group, which Tenet had hired to evacuate its hospitals.

The segment mentioned neither company nor any other rescuers.

The Oprah clip begins on Labor Day with McConaughey entering the "abandoned" hospital wearing a white surgical mask. He tells the story of Dr. James Riopelle, who stayed after the last people were evacuated the previous Friday. He was keeping a promise to fellow staffers that he would look after the pets.

Winfrey tells viewers he had been living there "without food and without water," even though Tenet had dropped enough to keep him and the animals going for days.

Tenet had arranged for helicopters to evacuate the animals on Sunday, Sept. 4, after it had taken care of the people in its other facilities and the day before McConaughey arrived.

The Aviation Services team affectionately labeled its project Operation Noah's Ark.

"As we landed, we knew we were in the right spot because there was literally a mountain of dog food," said Brent Hudspeth, who helped plan the pet rescue. "He had more dog food than he knew what to do with."

On Sunday, Winfrey said on the show, an attempted rescue "went terribly wrong."

"This chopper crashed on landing," she said, showing the damaged red helicopter.

It wasn't much of a crash. The chopper had been on unstable ground and simply tipped over with nobody in it, people involved in the rescue effort said.

But that ended the operation for the day and gave Oprah's crew the opportunity to join the rescue.

A spokeswoman said the segments were meant to illustrate relief efforts already on the ground through the lens of Winfrey's "celebrity friends."

McConaughey "was sort of the Oprah show on-location reporter," publicist Carly Ubersox said. "He consistently refers to we, as being part of a group effort."

Witnesses say McConaughey and the rest of the Oprah crew did contribute to the rescue, carrying animals and paddling a boat to a makeshift landing pad nearby.

The pets were airlifted from Lindy Boggs and later transported to the Hattiesburg, Miss., airport. Kent Glenn, a North Texas veterinarian, arranged to have the pets taken from the region, and Tenet established a Web site to reunite the pets with their owners.

The final count, McConaughey told viewers, was 50 dogs, 18 cats and two hamsters.

The fog of war may have led to varying tallies. The aviation firm put it at 41 dogs, 16 cats and two gerbils.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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