By Steve Dale
What do our pets really know?
Of course, I remember exactly what I was doing on Sept. 11, 2001. I happened to be watching the Today Show when the first tower of the World Trade Center was hit. Soon, it became apparent that America was under attack.
My wife, Robin, who then worked across the street from Sears Tower (thought to be a potential high rise target), was evacuated, as was everyone who worked in downtown Chicago.
As I took the dogs on the four-block walk to meet Robin at the train, even a decade later, I distinctly recall how they were totally tuned into me in a way they’d never been before. They weren’t interested in sniffing or lunging at squirrels. Something else was clearly on their minds.
Could they have known how upset and outright terrified I was? None of us knew what was happening. Airplanes were still headed to airports — and as I looked skyward, I imagined that each one might come down.
I remember hugging Robin as tears streamed from both our eyes. Once back home, we sat and watched television — horrified and numb. One of our dogs, Lucy, jumped onto the sofa and began to whimper. This was something she’d never previously done. Moments later, our other dog and our cat joined us. We were all entwined.
When I left them to walk two rooms away to my computer, Ricky the cat remained with me, literally clinging on my shoulder. He wasn’t about to be separated from me. The dogs stayed with Robin but cried the entire time I was gone. Again, these were behaviors we hadn’t seen before.
By the next morning, I thought, “I have to do something” and managed to contact FEMA, who accepted my request to speak with some dog handlers at Ground Zero and the Pentagon. Soon, I had a long list of cell phone numbers.
The first person I reached was Chris Christensen, a St. Louis area police officer who had instantly high-tailed it to New York City with Servus, his Belgian Malinois. Chris and Servus were one of the first teams not from the immediate region to arrive.
When I first reached Chris, he was in tears, telling me how Servus had been rushed from Ground Zero to the Animal Medical Center. At that moment, Chris didn’t know the fate of his canine partner , who had twice previously saved his life.
Servus had fallen and skidded down one of those mountains of debris at Ground Zero. While tumbling down, he’d inhaled lots of that white ash. Not only did Servus survive, but he also returned to continue his work. I spoke with Chris twice again at Ground Zero. What he described then was unimaginable.
“The site of twisted metal is everywhere –until you see a part of what was probably a copy machine or a drawer from a desk — and you realize — this was someone’s office. And it’s likely that someone who this belonged to is now gone,” Chris told me. “Of course, it bothers me that we couldn’t save lives, and that we didn’t even have that chance. I know Servus would have given his life to save a life.”
I soon was able to reach additional dog handlers in New York City, as well as at the Pentagon.
My Sept. 11-related columns for Tribune Media Services earned an award from Editor and Publisher as a syndicated feature writer of the year, which I cherish, as well as awards for my stories on 9-11 in Dog World magazine. But what really mattered was the attention focused on the dedication, selflessness and bravery of search-and-rescue dog teams. Several of my newspaper accounts didn’t run in the usual space reserved for pet stories but instead on news pages — even Page 1.
In November, 2001, I traveled to Boston to help honor 9-11 search-and-rescue dogs and their handlers at the Tufts Animal Expo.
While it’s true that the handlers and dogs were only doing what they were trained to do, most of the handlers I’ve spoke to agree that Sept. 11 was very different than any previous disaster responses. And their dogs somehow sensed that.
It seems clear that even our own pets sensed something different, for at least several days, following 9-11. Our family was so cohesive after 9-11. In fact, for the first time in my life, America was truly a family after 9-11. What’s sad that it took a terrorist attack to make that happen. Our animals figured it out, even if we didn’t.
©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services