When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Tom McPhee had just sold a business and was prepping for a Super Bowl function he was promoting. After hearing Mayor Ray Nagin’s plea for help, he loaded up his Honda Element with provisions and tools, and headed to New Orleans to help. He ended up at a refugee center where he heard animal noises coming from the back of the facility and found that homeless animals were being herded together there. “They were coming in at such volume that there were all sorts of organizational issues,” McPhee says in a phone interview. “One of the major ones was how to track the animals. I don’t know how to describe this to you but at that point our purpose became abundantly clear.”
McPhee started taking photos of the animals so they could be identified. He ended up with thousands of images and continued taking photos and doing interviews up until last year. The result is the award-winning documentary, An American Opera: The Greatest Pet Rescue Ever!, which McPhee has taken on tour to over 100 US cities. “When everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing, so much can go wrong,” he says. “You have people coming in as volunteers who are stealing from people’s homes while they’re trying to help their animals. I saw so much psychology going on. I started to wind that into a story. The pet portion of this was completely man-made. If people had been able to take their pets with them when they evacuated, you wouldn’t have had this problem. You had upwards of 100,000 pets. You have issues of trying to resolve all these things with foster pet owners who don’t want to give the pets back.”
In his countless interviews with law enforcement officials and animal rights activists, McPhee realized it was often best to let the viewer come to his or her decision about who did the right thing. “I spent time letting people communicate their own positions so when we look back on them, we can see that even though they feel like they were doing the right thing, maybe they weren’t,” he says. “Maybe they shouldn’t have been gunning the animals down in the streets because somebody was coming to get them. For me, there’s a strange moment when you realize every single person is so connected and committed to the fact that they’re doing the right thing and yet everyone is so fucked up in their thinking. Everyone can justify their position. But how do you justify that you can spend four whole days gunning down animals? There wasn’t anything more important to do?”
The film screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 4 at the Cedar Lee (2163 Lee Rd., 216.321.5411, clevelandcinemas.com). It’s preceded by a VIP reception at 6:15 p.m. that includes a meet-and-greet with McPhee. VIP tickets are $25, with $10 of each ticket going to a local animal charity. You can purchase tickets and find more information about the film at rescuepartytour.com.