Dedicated to the therapy dogs at Pier 94 in NYC who work so hard responding to the human mess of 9/11, particularly to my special friend Wusel. Thank you, dogs and humans, for your undying love.
The hours upon hours you pad through these paths of pain are the hours you help us see the light through the pouring rain. You never falter, never fail, and always come to mind the joy and inspiration that's sometimes hard to find. As we muddle through the wreckage that's half hope and half despair, you stand like an anchor, tail wagging in the air.
With every touch, you heal us, from fur to human heart solace in each stroke, you prevent our falling apart. You never complain and though you cry, you do not show your tears - you swallow them back, hold your post and calm so many fears. Your spirit penetrates our beings right into our souls - you let us touch and talk to you as we try to fill the holes.
There are times we want to just give up and head back to our homes and there you are with pricked up ears and then we're not alone. You sigh, surrender; knowingly roll onto your back: "here's my tummy- you can have it, just give me a snack."
You do so much for us that we just can't do ourselves - you specialize in soulspeak that will never cease to delve straight into the places we do not talk about. You let us cry and let us laugh and get all of it out.
So before I go I want to say I hope you know the truth:
You saved me every single day. I survived because of you.
Americorps/American Red Cross
Printed with permission
In the week following September 11th, Mario and Karen stood in the rain and in the heat - every day, all day, in front of the Armory in New York City with their two Golden Retrievers, Jesse and Jake. They knew they were needed there. The families of the victims were in and around the Armory, waiting to hear any kind of rescue news about each of their loved ones. Mario and Karen are Staten Island residents, where up to 1/3 of the New Yorkers missing from the World Trade Center had lived. There were the two of them, to support each other, and they presented two different types of personalities to the New York City Police Department and the World Trace Center victim's families.
On Wednesday at midnight the Mayor officially moved the Family Assistance Center to the Pier on the West Side Highway as the Armory was too small to accommodate everyone. At this point, close to giving up and knowing they would have less ability to stay close to the families once they were relocated to the Pier Karen said "Let us try it one more time". So they were again up and into the city before dawn. On their own, together, they managed to get permission to enter the Pier - from surprisingly a Deputy Commissioner from the Office of the Mayor. When all other avenues of entrance seemed to have been denied, they were given a small chance to prove the dogs could help - If any one thing went wrong, they, the dogs, and the program would be out the door immediately. Little did they know at the time that the potential for therapy dogs being allowed in to assist the families, hinged on their two teams.
So the first two teams at the Family Assistance Center at the Pier were Golden Retrievers. As soon as these two troopers arrived home that night they were on the phone to TheraPet executives, more teams were needed. The next day I arrived at the Pier in my official capacity as President of TheraPet with my 4 year old golden Skye, followed the next day by Alice Crans, TheraPet Vice President in charge of Programs, with her golden Topaz.
What was Pier 94 all about? It was about the 5000 people who were missing. About their grief-stricken parents, husbands, wives, sons and daughters. It was about the 1000 or so people who were evacuated from their homes with no more than the clothes on their back. It was about the ten's of thousands of people who were suddenly without an income. It was about the 1000 or so police, rescue workers, firemen, mental health workers, chaplains, staff, volunteers and others who came from across the county - people who had spent 10 - 14 straight days working without break, trying to protect these people, trying to help these people. - These volunteers who were themselves at a breaking point. And it was about being there for one of our own - a missing TheraPet member, a father of toddler twins, the husband of a former TheraPet President.
This is the same Pier well known to golden exhibitors as the place where the Specialties used to be held just prior to Westminster. In the aftermath of September 11th the Pier was where families waited for news and later where they came for help and assistance, both emotionally and financially. Where they came for death certificates, and finally, to receive the urns.
It was about the 6-8 hours of work that was done day after day for 5 days straight by those first teams. Those first days proved the program to the Red Cross, proved the program to the Mayors office, proved the program to the New York City Police Department. Proved the program to such a point that dogs were being requested by mental health staff and chaplains. They proved the program so that it expanded from that first handful of teams to allow inclusion of other therapy organizations. They proved the program so that it expanded to having therapy pets available in the building 7 days a week. They proved the program so that eventually over an eight week period of time more than 80 teams came through the doors of the Pier to help comfort those who were devastated by the tragedy of September 11th.
What follows here are some stories from a couple of those first team members at the Pier. Elaine Shoe and Alice Crans.
In the weeks since, I have often been asked about our experiences at the Pier. And each time that I am asked to describe a memorable interaction I had with my dogs at the Pier my mind is flooded with so many stories I have no idea which one to begin first.
During my 2 year old (?) golden Patrick's first visit to the Pier, he quickly showed me how stable and empathic he could be by his own determination to approach and soothe those persons who seemed to be the most distressed. He had no hesitation to be gripped, bodily enveloped and repeatedly cried upon, including Sunday, when the urns were given out. It was an extremely intense day and only the experienced pets were scheduled and only for short periods of time. Many of the families outside in line waiting to come into the building were emotional and several were already saying how they knew the dogs would be here for them. One woman in line reached for Patrick, dropped to her knees and collapsed emotionally on to him. While she was crying out her grief to him she would stop every so often and ask me for his name, then again his age or make a comment or laugh at herself and then begin crying again. This continued for 5 - 10 minutes, you are never sure how long. It seems as though time stands still in that one spot and the rest of the world goes rushing by. Patrick never faltered in staying with her. The harder she cried the closer he placed himself to her. I was not sure how much more either he or I could handle alone without our breaking down with her, when a member of her family finally came back outside to find her. With a deep sigh she calmed herself, gave Patrick and I one bigger hug and said thank you, now she would be able to handle what she needed to do. My dog was drained, I was drained, but more importantly, we had been able to help this woman cope with what life had thrown at her. There is any number of things this experience showed me (or rather reminded me) about human nature, also any number of things this experience taught me about my dog and myself - about our abilities and about our limitations. As she walked away I looked down at my dog, so very proud of him, and realized that I was one breath way from breaking down in tears myself.
My first responsibility was to my dog and he needed to get to a break area outside the Pier compound area for a romp so that he could throw off the tension. I needed that too, but even more I needed someone to hold me for a moment.
Many of the stories and confidences you hear are heartbreaking. As a parent I feel the pain of each mother or father when they show me the picture of their lost child. As a widow I understand the shock and grief of loosing a spouse. So many times you want to cry with them. But you can't break down, you can't loose control, you are there as a professional, it is your job to help give comfort to those in need. Your first responsibility is to your dog, your second responsibility is to the family. You find a way to hold back the tears until you have a private moment, and you find support among the other volunteers. My TheraPet teammates and Red Cross chaplains were usually there for a quick hug and a couple of tissues. This would be impossible work to do alone.
Your first responsibility is to be there for your pet, you have to over see their physical safety and emotional stability. One interaction of the intensity described above could drain your dog for hours. I found from working two dogs separately at the Pier that their reactions to the families were quite different. Skye is the thinker of the family. She also internalizes most everything so that she needs a good physical romp to release the tension. The first day she kept thinking she had to be with the families and was refusing to relax, even with a break. She was determined to not leave the building, and when we did she kept turning around on the leash to look back at the entrances. Someone mentioned it as similar to the rescuers and firemen's need to keep going. I finally found a place that first day where she was content to take a good rest. It was only in the dining room, under a heavily draped table, and if the families were surrounding us. After that first day she continued through all of the visits to internalize the emotional interactions, but she quickly shook it off with a short romp with her tennis ball. Patrick was more the Energizer Bunny and seemed rarely fazed by intense emotions. He gave as much as Skye to each family but between each interaction I would see him throw off the tension by a quick shake of his body.
Most experienced pet therapy dogs make many of their own choices as to who they feel needs them. Skye is a very loose lead dog, easy to walk with, but she is absolutely determined if she sees someone she wants to go to. And she is usually right. I find that she watches faces, whereas Patrick watches hands. Both of them see something we don't see. I am never sure if they are reading a persons eyes, reading their minds or seeing into their soul. So many times I hear a family say "I'm so glad you came over to me" and I had not a clue they were willing to pet the dogs.
After the fall
How our world has changed. How indelibly altered over a span of a half hour on September 11, and how many thousands of lifetimes.
People have been touched at the very center of their being - the hurt is palpable - even for those not living in or near New York City. What to say? What can a person do? I, for one find it impossible to compose a simple note for a sympathy card. I never find that task easy, but at this point I literally can't do it. It's so hard to scale the disaster down to digestible chunks. Even from the distance of nearly two months, it's too enormous for me to wrap my mind around.
Everyone seems to have a need to get involved somehow. We seem to want to undo the evil that was done, to reconstruct what was before. (Well, there are those who are able to put on blinders and focus on a near object - never letting go.) But others need to fight, to help, to try and get on with their lives - something.
Those of use with dogs trained for therapy - we're incredibly fortunate. We use them lavishly for ourselves. How many times have I stained my golden's coat with my tears? (How many times have I let others?) How often have I hugged and held and caressed and brushed, all the while to soothe myself. (How many times have I let others?)
We may think first of those family members who have lost loved ones, and the service our animals can do at the Pier where they are offering ...urns?, flags?, flowers?, bears? - a wall of hope and remembrance - and solace. The animals are working there. Giving and loving and warmly accepting.
Think then of the men and women still at Ground Zero - digging, hoping (no, not really hoping anymore), working, and sweating, in that pit of hellish heat that must go all the way to eternity. What better thing for them to cling to - than our dog. Something they don't have to save, something that just offers unconditional love. Something that says better than words that there is a living-breathing world out there beyond the cloud. (Something with a beating heart.)
Where else can we serve? Look close to home. Look in our schools where children are still fearful, in our police stations - many of which have sent officers into the city to help guard the tunnels and bridges; look in our own firehouse, and in our own hospitals, in our own post offices. Bring in your pet (and his or her credentials) with you as you work through your world and you will find a galaxy of hurt. Some people may just want to look, some to touch, others to hug and hold.
The presence of animals who are safe, who somehow have developed an innate sense of what people need, does so much to allay fear even for a moment. Sometimes they serve as a trigger for tears; sometimes they can stem the flow. Take them with you, ask permission and you will see doors open for your therapist. Watch them work. We are only the anchor on the lead, the chauffeurs. They know their jobs and they do them well. Trust them. They can lead us out of the pit and stench into sunlight and joy if only briefly.
In closing we would like to thank Mario and Karen Canzonieri for proving to the governing officials in NYC, what we have known all along - What a comfort our pets can be, not only to us but to those in need. We owe you a debt of gratitude, without you this would not have been possible.
Article originally published in the Jan-Feb 2002 GRNews