By Katie Marsico
Six years ago, people around the world watched painful news reports revealing the rubble, debris, smoke, and fire that set apart the areas surrounding the remnants of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They also waited pensively to see if friends and loved ones trapped in the disaster would eventually be found, ending at least part of the nightmare of September 11. Firefighters, paramedics, U.S. troops, and police responded to the scene to help them achieve this goal, as did many search dogs. Thirteen such canines heralded from the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (NDSDF), based out of Ojai, California.
NDSDF provides rigorous training to prepare animals to search out and save human life in the midst of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. In addition to fulfilling a much needed national resource, the organization also gives many dogs a second chance—several of its canines are recruited from shelters and rescue groups. The animals are then professionally trained and partnered with firefighters and other emergency responders at no cost to their departments.
“Search dogs play several critical roles in helping our nation recover from catastrophes such as September 11,” says Debra Tosch, Executive Director of the NDSDF. “For starters, the canines at Ground Zero were there to make sure that no one was left behind. Secondly, they were a great source of comfort and physical assistance to human rescuers. From an equally important perspective, they were a reminder to countless families and friends that everything that could be done was being done to locate their loved ones.”
A Golden Retriever named Ana is living testimony to this sense of duty. Appropriately born on Independence Day in 1995, she is now approaching retirement. Ana was the very first dog to serve with NDSDF. Described by the organization as “the best of our search dogs,” she has been deployed with her handler and guardian, fire captain Rick Lee of Sacramento, California, to disasters ranging from September 11 to Hurricane Katrina. She and Lee achieved the highest level of career recognition attached to search dogs and their handlers—Advanced Certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—after only seven months together. Yet September 11 was nonetheless an exhausting, challenging experience for both the humans and animals who participated in recovery efforts. Dilapidated building structures, fire, dust, and chemicals were but a few of the complications Rick and Ana encountered in the course of a day’s work.
“Like other NDSDF dogs at Ground Zero, Ana worked 12-hour shifts for 10 days,” says Tosch. “Yet all of our canines truly rose to the occasion. Though they sadly didn’t locate survivors, they were instrumental in helping identify victims. It’s safe to say that Ana and her fellow search dogs never gave up from Day One to Day Ten.”
In September 2006—the five-year anniversary of the tragedy—Ana and her handler returned to the site of Ground Zero for commemorative services. Tosch contends that her presence was an ongoing source of solace to attendees who had suffered a loss. “It speaks to Ana’s abilities that she was able to keep on helping and healing five years later. Search dogs like her truly serve both a physical and emotional function.”
Ana is due to retire in March 2008 at the age of 12 and will continue to reside with Lee and his family. Though she is unlikely to be involved in actual search missions, it is probable that the Golden Retriever will remain instrumental in training future generations of dogs and handlers. “When search dogs retire, it’s usually due to physical limitations brought on by age or related conditions,” says Tosch. “Yet their hearts seem to be forever invested in working, assisting others, and saving lives. I have no doubt that this holds especially true for Ana.”
Jake, a Black Labrador, was an abandoned, disabled puppy when Mary Flood adopted him; dropped off on the street, he had a broken leg and a dislocated hip. With the love and support of Flood, Jake recovered from his early setbacks and went on to become a national hero as part of the Utah Task Force 1, a canine search and rescue team. On July 26, he died at his home in Utah, after a battle with cancer. He was 12 years old.
As part of the Utah Task Force 1, Jake combed through smoky debris at the World Trade Center, searching for survivors. He also went to Mississippi to help rescuers after Hurricane Katrina. As one of only 200 U.S. government-certified rescue dogs, Jake was on 24-hour call in case of a disaster. Some dog caretakers who worked with rescue dogs like Jake claim their canines have become sick since working at Ground Zero. Scientists who have studied the effects of time at Ground Zero on canines, however, say there are no signs of major illness among rescue dogs. Cancer in 12-year-old dogs is not uncommon.
In addition to working as a rescue dog, Jake helped train puppies and their handlers across the country to become top-notch rescue dogs. He taught them how to identify and track scents and how to look up to see if the scent was in a tree. Jake also worked at a Utah camp for burn victims as a therapy dog.
But according to Flood, Jake’s charitable work is not over yet. “One of the things I’m thinking of doing is putting a book together that includes all the nice things people have said about Jake, and then donating any proceeds to helping shelter dogs,” she says. —Laura Oppenheimer