New Mexico's Pet Resource WINTER 2005


911 for 9/11 Search and Rescue Dogs

by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. (photos by Paula Chambers)

Along with the hundreds of brave firefighters, EMTs, police and other human heroes of the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, hundreds of search and rescues dogs were deployed to the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Because of their superior sensory abilities, the dogs were able to detect faint sounds and scents better than their human counterparts. Being four footed, lighter and more agile, they could work the huge piles of debris with more stability, causing less additional collapses of the rubble. These canine heroes worked side by side with human rescuers, sharing the risks of bodily injury and exposure to a myriad of known and unknown toxins.

The dogs deployed to those horrific sites are part of a network of search and rescue dogs under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). There are 28 urban search and rescue task forces in the United States including NM Task Force 1. The dogs and their handlers are all volunteers.

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, NM Task Force 1 was sent to the Pentagon for search and rescue work. One of the deployed dogs was K9 Sage, a border collie from Carlsbad, NM who was 2 1/2 years old at the time.

Sage and her handler Diane Whetsel are a team. The two attended FEMA’s Canine Search Specialist School. Successful graduation from this program is required of all canine task force team members. Whetsel and Sage are called upon most often right here in New Mexico. With such a vast wilderness, locating lost hikers is one of their most frequent tasks. Police forensic work, searching for human remains, is also in the line of duty for these teams. On the job, Whetsel is Sage’s partner, but at home she says, “I’m Sage’s mom. She lives with me as a family member. I would never put her in any dangerous situation where I would not go.”

The Pentagon site was the worst disaster NM Task Force 1 had ever encountered. The dogs were exposed to many toxins at the Pentagon and World Trade Center, as were the human responders. Dr. Cynthia M. Otto of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania set up a health-monitoring program for the dogs. Dr. Otto is a critical care veterinarian who took care of several of the dogs at Ground Zero in NYC. Approximately 100 of the 300 search and rescue dogs who were deployed to these sites took part in the study. The age of these dogs ranged from 1 to 11 years, with a median age of 5 years. Fifty-five search and rescue dogs who were not deployed were used as a control group. Otto says that the study has short and long term goals. The first part is to assess the immediate problems the dogs encountered during their work on site. Such results help to determine how to better prepare dogs for future search and rescue operations of this magnitude. The long-term goal is to see what problems might arise from the dogs’ exposure to toxins present at the rescue sites. These findings may also reflect on the risks for people, particularly with regard to cancers.

The initial study spanned three years. Each year post-9/11, the dogs had x-rays and blood panels taken annually by their local veterinarians. All blood samples and x-ray results were sent to Dr. Otto. Blood tests at the end of the first year showed that the deployed dogs had significantly higher levels of a blood protein called immunoglobulin and of two liver values than did the control group dogs. While the reason for this increase is unknown, it is likely a response to the increased exposure of the deployed dogs to substances that stimulated their immune systems (e.g., toxins or inhaled particles). Interestingly, the levels resolved to normal by the end of the second year. No additional differences have been found. During the first three years of the study, 15 of the dogs who were deployed died, eight from cancers and seven from a variety of other causes. At this point, no relationship has been found between exposure at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon and the deaths or incidences of cancer.

The good news is that despite massive chaos and destruction during their deployment, Otto found that the dogs fared well. No major respiratory or laceration problems occurred. The biggest problems were dehydration and stress brought on by the demanding rescue schedule. “The dogs were extremely well trained, which is a credit to their handlers,” Otto says. Initial recommendations coming from the study are that dogs on future deployments have sufficient hydration and adequate rests areas away from the chaos and noise of the search site.

After three years, the program to monitor the dogs will continue on a more limited basis, using medical/behavioral surveys rather than direct medical testing. This leaves some handlers with grave concerns about their dogs’ health. It may be that the non-acute effects of some of the toxins have yet to surface. Whetsel feels that continuing the medical study would provide early detection, which would be the dogs’ best defense against illnesses and diseases related to 9/11. Human rescuers may benefit as well from the continued monitoring of the dogs. Whetsel argues, “Like a canary in a mine, our dogs will become symptomatic before the human responders, providing an early warning to human health care providers as to what they need to be looking for.” VIP, a company that provides health insurance for pets has given lifetime health insurance coverage to all of the officially deployed search and rescue dogs. The insurance covers the cost of treatment but not the cost of medical tests that might provide early detection. Whetsel is extremely grateful for the insurance, but would like to see some agency or foundation provide financial support to continue the medical tests that were part of the initial study.

The American Kennel Club (AKC), AKC Companion Animal Recovery and AKC Canine Health Foundation supported the first three years of Dr. Otto’s study on the 9/11search and rescue dogs, and continue to fund the medical/behavioral surveys. To insure the continued health monitoring of the dogs, you can contribute directly to Dr. Otto’s grant through donations to the AKC Canine Health Foundation, a non-profit organization. Specify that your contribution is for Dr. Otto’s Grant #0396. To find out how to donate, individuals concerned about the health of the 9/11 dogs can contact AKC Canine Health Foundation directly at their web site: AKC Canine Health

In the aftermath of the worst episode of terrorism against the United States, the search and rescue dogs of 9/11 stood with human responders in all efforts to search, rescue and recover the victims of that horrible tragedy. It is the responsibility of a grateful nation to see that the health and well-being of these canine heroes are assured.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator who worked at the Boston Zoos for 15 years. She lives in Cerrillos with her husband, five rescued dogs (three greyhounds, two terriers) and three horses.

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