Photographer Charlotte Dumas has profiled many of those 4-legged heroes in her book Retrieved. It’s on my wish list.
One of the dogs in Retrieved is Bretagne (pronounced Brittany), a Golden Retriever who is reported to be the only surviving rescue dog from the Twin Towers disaster (one other dog, a springer spaniel named Morgan who worked at the Fresh Kills site at Staten Island, is still alive). A Golden Retriever is also on my wish list, BTW.
Bretagne was trained in and lives in a suburb near mine in the great state of Texas. Her very first assignment was search & rescue at Ground Zero. She was just 2 years old when she was deployed, along with her handler Denise Corliss.
The absence of any human survivors at Ground Zero was unimaginably difficult for everyone involved in the recovery effort — including the dogs. Despite the fruitless search, the dogs worked tirelessly among the perilous conditions that included broken glass, twisted metal, and hazardous emissions. The human searchers were protected by heavy gloves, boots, and masks; the dogs, however, relied on their bare paws for balance, their exposed claws for traction, and their sensitive noses for any whiff of human remains.
Bretagne spent 2 weeks working 12-hour shifts in the dangerous conditions. Her handler recalls that on her very first search, Bretagne slipped on a metal beam that was wet from the fire hoses that still doused the smoldering wreckage. Corliss was nervous, but said that Bretagne “pulled herself back up onto the beam with her front paws and continuing to sniff intently as if nothing had happened.”
Corliss recalls how Bretagne seemed to make a point of putting herself in front of weary first responders. Several times, Bretagne left Corliss’ side to greet shell-shocked firefighters. Corliss gave the command for Bretagne to come back, sit and stay, but was rebuked. Corliss was shocked that the usually well behaved dog disobeyed: “I was surprised that she wasn’t listening to me, but she really wasn’t — it was like she was flipping me the paw.”
One of the veterinarians who looked after the search & rescue dogs at Ground Zero founded the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. Dr Cindy Otto realized that the dogs working at Ground Zero supplied much more than search & rescue or recovery: they provided great comfort to the first responders. She says, “You’d see firefighters sitting there, unanimated, stone-faced, no emotion, and then they’d see a dog and break out into a smile. Those dogs brought the power of hope. They removed the gloom for just an instant — and that was huge because it was a pretty dismal place to be.”
At the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, the puppies in training are named after the dogs who worked Ground Zero. Bretagne met her namesake, who now lives with a man who has Type 1 diabetes. Bretagne 2 alerts her new master if his blood-sugar levels get out of whack.
Cheers to Bretagne and the next generation of 4-legged heroes. May your treats be plentiful and your belly rubs never-ending.