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Dogs playing key roles in N.Y. search and rescue missions

Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Hundreds of dogs have sniffed and sifted through the endless rubble that once was the World Trade Center. Dogs located bodies buried beneath mountains of debris. Some worked 12-hour shifts in the early aftermath of the Sept. 11 carnage, racing the clock in a frantic but fruitless attempt to rescue live victims.

As many as 300 Search and Rescue dogs were on the site that first weekend. I spotted German shepherds, Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and dogs of mixed-breed origins.

Some are police department K-9 officers, including members of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit Canine Team. Most of the dogs and their handlers, brought in from all parts of the country, are members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Urban Search and Rescue teams.

The people who own and handle those dogs are volunteers who spend hundreds of hours training them. The dogs and handlers are certified by federal officials. FEMA's 27 Urban Search and Rescue teams report to the scene of hurricanes, earthquakes, explosions and other disasters, including the Oklahoma City bombing, where dogs played key roles.

Ground zero in lower Manhattan is dangerous ground for all volunteers, but the dogs go where humans cannot go. They crawl through small tunnel-like pockets and clamber and climb over shifting, unstable piles of debris.

Dogs have an instinctive fear of walking on unstable ground. They will not, by nature, enter dark, narrow spaces. Rescue dog candidates are taught to navigate agility courses, but no one can teach dogs to have the courage, desire and drive needed to work at disaster sites.

On Sept. 16, two dogs fell from reported heights of more than 30 feet. When the call went out for a portable X-ray machine, one was bought by The American Kennel Club, based in midtown Manhattan. The dogs survived, but I haven't been able to get an update on their condition.

There is another level of difficulty involved in New York. The scents and smells are almost overpowering. The dogs have never worked a scene with more than 5,000 bodies.

But by all accounts, they're working well. When dogs alert handlers that they've found a body, it is carefully removed by volunteers. Then heavy construction equipment can be used to remove large amounts of debris.

Less than 24 hours after the twin towers were hit, alerts went out over e-mail lists that leather booties worn by search and rescue dogs were being shredded by glass and sharp metal. Within the hour, more e-mails reported that an overabundance of booties had been rushed to the scene.

Volunteer veterinarians have been caring for rescue dogs around the clock at a mobile hospital and rest area. Dog eyes and noses are regularly flushed with water. Dogs are bathed frequently to remove ash, smoke and debris. Antibiotics and pain medication are administered.

Multiple agencies and companies too numerous to mention are involved in efforts to care for rescue dogs and for pets whose owners were killed, as well as pets left behind when officials ordered the evacuation of thousands of lower Manhattan apartments.

The AKC and AKC Companion Animal Recovery have established a disaster relief fund. The AKC has put $50,000 into the fund and will match donations made by their own employees.

There are daily updates at the web site http://www.akc.org, and donations to their fund can be mailed to: AKC/AKC CAR Disaster Relief Fund, c/o Fund Administrator Thomas G. Murphy CFO, The American Kennel Club, 260 Madison Avenue, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016.

The AKC is working with New York City agencies on pet-relief efforts. Iams, Pedigree, Purina, Sherpa and Alpo are donating dog food, and other companies are donating supplies. To contribute, call the AKC at 212-696-8327.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is involved in many efforts, including the mobile veterinary unit, and it has a disaster relief hot line: 212-876-7700, Ext. 4PET. Their Web site - http://www.aspca.org -- has information, including an address for donations: ASPCA Disaster Relief Fund, 424 E. 92nd St., New York, NY 10128.

Donations for rescue dogs and handlers can also be sent to New York City Offices, c/o Search and Response (K-9), 61 Chambers St., New York, NY 10007.

Other dogs are helping New York recover, dogs such as Baruch, a big red Doberman pinscher who lives at 29th Street and Second Avenue, less than two miles away from ground zero.

Baruch lives with Avrama Gingold, a woman I've never met in person but have come to know through a dog-topic e-mail list. When the World Trade Center was hit, Gingold was flooded with e-mails from members of the list.

Her response was crisp and concise: "We're fine. I'm taking Baruch for his walk, then I'm going to donate blood."

Her response and reaction gave me new respect for New Yorkers. But then, I've been continually awed by the courage and resilience of the residents of the city that many had loved to hate.

One week later, Gingold sent an e-mail update: "Baruch has been an unofficial therapy dog. Like many dogs, he has recognized the need and cooperated with those who've wanted to pet a dog for comfort. My nonlicker has even been licking people."

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