The Dogs at Ground Zero



October 17, 2001

September 11th, 2001. A date scorched into the collective consciousness of a nation much as December 7, 1941 was for those who came before. I watched the events of that day unfold from the security of my office, struggling to convince myself that the pictures were real and not scenes from a grade B disaster movie.

If it is possible, the aftermath of September 11 at the WTC site has been even more shocking and unsettling than the cataclysmic event itself.

The round the clock rescue and recovery operation has been well-chronicled, and uplifting stories of courage, heroism, and sacrifice have been made public. The unprecedented size and scope of the response to this disaster has been apparent to all over the last month.

A vital part of the response team at the WTC site are the search and rescue (SAR) dogs and their handlers. These highly trained partners have come from all over the nation to risk themselves amongst the rubble of the World Trade Centers in an unflagging effort initially to locate survivors, and now to recover bodies.

Several hundred dogs have participated in the operation, many of them German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers. They have been working in 12 hour shifts, spending 20-30 minutes "on the pile", followed by a rest period. Health hazards for the dogs abound in this type of working environment, and veterinary care is vital to allow the dogs to continue their efforts.

Veterinary Medical Assistant Teams (VMATs) were quickly mobilized and deployed to the WTC site to care for the SAR animals. VMATs are special teams of veterinarians sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association and the AVMA Foundation, and are deployed under the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Emergency Preparedness.

These groups of veterinarians faced many health issues in their special patients under the most trying of circumstances. Dehydration was a major concern, and SAR dogs routinely received subcutaneously administered fluids before and after their shifts.

Injuries from the dangerously unstable pile of rubble were common, abraded paws and lacerations being the most frequent. Exposure to dangerous substances such as fuel spills, asbestos, and other toxins was also encountered. A veterinary MASH unit was set up on-site, and a few seriously injured dogs were cared for at the Animal Medical Center of New York.

Most of us have seen SAR dogs at work before. They and their handlers can be found at any disaster site where people are at risk. Whether it is combing suburban woods for a missing child, or picking their way through the rubble of Oklahoma City and the World Trade Centers, these amazing animals and their equally devoted handlers have saved countless lives.

It has been a month since the WTC attack now.

The terrifying images of crashing jetliners and collapsing skyscrapers have largely been replaced on the evening news by maps of Afghanistan and "bomb-damage assessment" photos.

For me though, one scene from ground zero remains indelible in my mind.

A Fox News Channel camera panned across the activity at the debris pile. There, amidst the barely controlled chaos of the rescue operation, was a SAR dog and his handler. Worked past exhaustion, they were both sound asleep on a small cot. As the cameraman closed in on the pair, the SAR German Shepherd wearily opened one eye as if to ask when will the inhumanity end?



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Date of Last Update: October 17, 2001
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