One of Hurricane Katrina's tiniest victims went home Wednesday, but it was to a home unlike any he'd ever known.
Payne survived the hurricane when it struck his Waveland, Miss., home. But then he faced death two more times: this 5-year-old border collie-mix was rescued the day before he was scheduled to be euthanized at a Mississippi shelter, and he averted death from complications to medical treatment here.
Wednesday's long-awaited homecoming was tinged with sadness for his rescuers at Lee County Animal Services, who saved him from destruction at the Gulfport shelter overcrowded with furry victims.
"I've been telling him he's going to see his real mom," Maria Raiche, the Lee shelter's senior vet technician and a member of the rescue team, said with her arms wrapped around him on the floor of Delta Air Lines' cargo bay at Southwest Florida International Airport.
"I'm not crying. I cried earlier," Raiche said, almost as if reminding herself to keep the tears in check after crawling out of his crate, which she'd wiggled into up to her shoulders for their last hugs and kisses.
Raiche became his savior. She selected Payne in Gulfport after hearing he was slated to die the next day.
"I just liked him especially," she said, rubbing his slender sides as he slid his left paw onto her arm. "We've been through so much in the last four months."
Raiche believes that Payne, thin and hungry when she found him, was on his own on the storm-ravaged streets for at least two weeks before he went to Gulfport's shelter.
Payne has spent his short life in the hot and steamy South. Now he'll face his first snow in Millstadt, Ill.
With a population of 2,794 in 2000, according to U.S. Census figures, this tiny village about 16 miles southeast of St. Louis now is home to his owner, Ami Baron, 28.
"Before the hurricane he was pretty hefty," Baron said by phone from her sister's home in Millstadt. "He's been through so much. It's been a terrible four months."
Her boyfriend left the dog behind when he evacuated. Baron was out of state when the hurricane hit, visiting family after deciding to move back to Illinois. She couldn't fly back in time to rescue her dog.
"That was pretty cruel," Baron said of her boyfriend's stranding the dog. "He (Payne) apparently was on the bed because you can see his paw prints on the bedspread," Baron said. "The water (line) was about one foot from the ceiling."
In what remained of her bedroom, she saw Payne's pawprints on the wall and window. Payne had to break the window to escape when the flood waters rose.
"He's pretty much all that's left," Baron said. "He got really lucky."
When Baron returned after the storm, Payne was gone. She said she ditched the boyfriend.
But then she started tracking Payne, who earned his name as a hyperactive puppy. A crumpled piece of paper in her yard told her he was taken to the shelter.
"They told me he went to Gulfport, then Hattiesburg. Then I got a call from Florida," she said. "I can't imagine what was going through his head. I bet he was scared. He's been through a lot."
Ria Brown, a spokeswoman for the shelter, said Mississippi animal shelter officials originally didn't want any pets taken out of state. That's because it would be harder to find them and match them with their owners.
Payne then rode out Hurricane Wilma on Oct. 24. About a month ago, he was set to return home with a local man driving to Mississippi to check on family there. But Payne grew deathly ill.
"He threw a clot and his lungs filled with fluid," Raiche said. "I took him to my personal vet."
The team returned to south Fort Myers Sept. 19, with Payne needing treatment for heartworm. The risk that some animals may develop potentially fatal blood clots almost became true for this pooch. He dropped 7 pounds and shelter staff thought he wouldn't pull through.
When Payne grew so sick, Raiche would boil chicken and rice at home at night for him, bringing it to work the next day. And he took his pills wrapped in cheese.
Now a whopping 75 pounds — including the plastic crate donated by PetsMart in south Fort Myers — Payne appears fully recovered.
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"I was considering keeping him. Until we found his owner," Raiche said, adding she has five dogs and a Hurricane Katrina cockatiel named Katrina at home. "That's where he needs to be."
She fondly recalled how they bonded over food on the very long drive back to Lee County. He'll devour any meal including chicken and cheese.
"We stopped at every Chick-Fil-A. We had chicken, hamburgers...," Raiche laughed as Payne raised his head at the word "chicken."
Payne's always loved cheese and chicken, Baron said. She used to boil him chicken, too. And he scarfed the cheese-flavored bones.
"But bread — he buries bread," Baron said. "I watched him one day. It was a piece of French bread. He buried it, and I guess he didn't like where he buried it because he dug it up and reburied it."
At his new home, Payne will have a half-acre and small barn for himself. Baron said her sister, whom she moved in with, lives on 25 acres.
"It's the best Christmas ever," Baron said.