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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 27 September 2001 Issue

TRAINED CANINES
STRUGGLE THROUGH RECOVERY EFFORTS
BY: ALEXIS CHIU, Mercury News

NEW YORK -- For the small army of search dogs who work to exhaustion in the smoking rubble where the World Trade Center stood, the unforgiving  job is made even tougher by a gruesome fact: The smell of death is everywhere.

"It's sensory overload," veterinarian Kim Rosenthal said Wednesday as she waited for her next patient at a dog triage center about six blocks north of ground zero.

And it is taking its toll on the roughly 300 dogs that have been brought here from as far as France, Canada, Michigan and California.

Lacerated paws.  Burns.  Dehydration.  Overheating.  Irritated eyes.  Stress.

Though they are in top physical shape, all the dogs are fatigued from keeping their balance on shifting wreckage.  Some, showing signs of psychological trauma, are having trouble eating and drinking normally;  others refuse to relieve themselves near the search area.

"Most dogs that train for this, in their whole career, don't do as much as they're doing in one week here," said Rosenthal, one of dozens of veterinarians working 12-hour shifts at the animal medical tent. "It's an incredible amount of work."

Because the dogs' work is entirely dependent on their keen noses, the vets' job is all the more important.  The ubiquitous odors cling to the dogs' fur, legs and paws, confusing them, so they are given regular baths.  For the canines that have combed the wreckage since the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, it's just one of the ways in which the instinctive drive to do their job -- and do it well -- has been hampered by the realities of the brutal terrain.

"It's just hazardous to the nth degree," said Erick Robertson, 36, who drove from Oakhurst, near Yosemite, to offer the services of his independently trained search dog, Porkchop.  Since Sunday, they've worked about eight hours a day.

Wednesday morning, Robertson knelt by Porkchop's side as the 1-year-old Australian shepherd got a checkup.  Puncture wounds, suffered when a police dog bit him in the back, were tender to the touch. The dog's gentle green eyes were bloodshot from the acrid dust.  And he was favoring one leg, which doctors tended to after carefully snipping away three layers of bandages and protective booties.

When Porkchop catches the scent of human remains, he signals his master either with three barks or a motion that resembles a sneeze.  Robertson said his dog has been making as many as a dozen recoveries per shift.

"I'm very proud of him.  He's 100 percent out there," Robertson said, nuzzling Porkchop as the exhausted, dehydrated dog received fluids intravenously.   "It just blows me away."

The human searchers who have become part of this city's new pantheon of heroes, hoping for miracles amid unspeakable carnage, in turn salute their canine colleagues.

"It would be almost impossible without the dogs," said Roy Gross, chief of law enforcement for the Suffolk County (Long Island) SPCA, which coordinated the veterinary tent with officials from the federal Veterinary Medical Assistance Team.   "These are the worst possible conditions."

FORTUNATELY, AUTHORITIES SAID, THEY ARE ABLE TO REWARD THE DOGS WITH THE BEST POSSIBLE CARE.  ANIMAL AGENCIES HAVE RECEIVED SO MANY DONATIONS -- LITERALLY TONS OF FOOD AND EVERYTHING FROM CHEW TOYS TO DOG ANTIBIOTICS AND PROTECTIVE BOOTIES -- THAT THEY NOW ARE ACCEPTING ONLY FINANCIAL CONTRIBUTIONS.

"WE'VE GOT ENOUGH TO FEED 5,000 DOGS," GROSS SAID.

The round-the-clock relief area includes a state-of-the-art mobile hospital with an operating room, X-ray and blood-testing equipment.  An adjoining tent is nearly overflowing with animal medicine and supplies.  A "People Table" in the corner, offering potato chips, energy bars and cough drops, goes virtually untouched.

The dogs' single-minded focus astounds even the professionals who train and treat them.  Gross recalled one dog that dragged itself into the tent after a tough shift in the pit.  After a few minutes of treatment, the animal "pulled its handler back toward the site," he said.

"These dogs are very bright.  They want to please, they want to do their job," Rosenthal said.  "That's their mission, and they take it very seriously."

Authorities said they did not know of any serious injuries or dog fatalities.   The closest call, Gross said, was a Belgian malinois that fell, face first, into a pile of soot and dust. The dog nearly suffocated but recovered after a night of intensive care.

At times, the work is harder on the humans than the dogs; the most emotionally wrenching moments are beyond canine comprehension.

Garvey recalled a distraught owner whose dog had just discovered the remains of five firefighters. And Robertson somberly recounted one of Porkchop's recoveries.

"Yesterday he came out of a hole with a teddy bear in his mouth," Robertson said.

With 5,422 missing and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani acknowledging there is virtually no chance of finding survivors, the dogs still have a long job ahead.

Said volunteer vet Michael Garvey: "They are heroes."

http://www0.mercurycenter.com/partners/docs1/040506.htm

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