Saturday, September 22, 2001

Rescue dogs suffer at site

Aftermath of attacks wears on canines

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MONROE — Worf's decadelong career ended Sept. 13 when he lay down on a pile of twisted steel and concrete on the south side of Manhattan.

        Stressed and depressed from just three hours of work at the World Trade Center site, the 12-year-old German shepherd from Monroe had to be permanently retired from search-and-rescue duty, underlining that dogs, too, can be traumatized by such a terrible scene.

[photo] Mike Owens and search dog Worf of Monroe were at ground zero in New York for two days, helping rescue efforts at the World Trade Center site.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        “He kind of withdrew from everything,” said Mike Owens, Worf's owner and a member of the Southwestern Ohio K-9 Search and Rescue Team. “There was so much death there, it was emotional for the dogs.”

        Mr. Owens and the canine spent two days in New York with five handlers — Michelle Bubemyre, Steve Dunaway and Jamie Partee of Hamilton, and Doug Combs and Joe Gabbard of Middletown — trying to locate survivors of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center collapse.

        The team's other two German shepherds, Frankie, a 6-year-old, and Fike, only 2, showed signs of stress, Mr. Owens said. They were agitated and confused. They lost some of their spunk.

        But nothing like Worf, who shut down the first day after helping locate the body of a missing New York firefighter. Even though he is the search team's most experienced canine, he began shedding profusely, quit eating and refused to play with the other dogs.

        Mr. Owens knew something was wrong when Worf signaled that he had found one more human scent in the rubble.

        The canine gave his usual whine. He rooted around with his nose in the debris, trying to inch closer to his discovery. Then, he lay down and curled up on the spot.

        “It was a defense mechanism. They get real depressed. Search-and-rescue is a game to them, a game of hide-and-seek,” Mr. Owens said.

        But their work in New York was a far cry from the missions they were accustomed to. Instead of finding live people, they were finding only the dead and body parts, Mr. Owens said.

        One local veterinarian who offers pet behavioral counseling as part of his practice said Worf's reaction isn't surprising.

        “If the dog is working with his nose — and there are over 6,000 lost there — the dog is getting those smells all over the place,” said Dr. Steven Stratemeyer, of Evendale-Blue Ash Pet Hospital.

        “Can you imagine how stressful that is for the dog to pick one body out out of all those smells? It's overwhelming.”

        For all, even the human team members, this was their first encounter with mass disaster. The closest Mr. Owens and Worf had ever come was trying to locate the bodies of a family of eight that drowned at Lake Cumberland in the early 1990s.

        A week after their return, Mr. Owens and his human colleagues are headed to counseling, to help them deal emotionally with their New York experience.

        “Several team members cried after seeing the site the first day. There were a lot of tears on the way home,” Mr. Owens said.

        At the same time, the canine handlers are trying to figure out how to nurse the wounded psyches of their dogs.

        At the suggestion of American Red Cross workers, the team plans to stage live search exercises for Frankie and Fike, allowing them to make successful rescues to renew their enthusiasm for their work.

        Worf is getting more than the usual attention at home.

        “We have a lot of people around petting and playing with him,” Mr. Owens said. “For Worf, that's the best therapy we can give him.”

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