From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

More Than Chocolate

I arrived at Ground Zero as part of the Emergency Animal Rescue Services (EARS) team on September 19, a week and a day after the terrorist attacks. Although there were plenty of agencies providing food and drink to the rescue personnel, everyone was still mostly running on adrenaline. There was so much to do, so much chaos and wreckage—so much energy tied up in helping in any way it was possible.

The devastation at the WTC area was unimaginable. Over three hundred search-and-rescue canine teams had come from all over to help find survivors, and when it became obvious that there were precious few of those, the teams looked for bodies. Many of the human/dog teams weren’t strictly search-and-rescue; if someone had a drugor bomb-sniffing dog, they came, too. Everyone wanted to do something.

EARS helped at a triage area for the dogs working at the site. When a team came off a shift, they brought the dogs to us for cleaning and decontamination. There was a lot of asbestos in the omnipresent dust that covered the animals’ fur. Plus the dogs had to trample through pools of foul and unsanitary water that collected as a result of the rain and the hose jets directed at the rubble to keep the dust out of the air.

After the dogs were clean, veterinarians did exams, paying particular attention to the dogs’ eyes, noses and feet. Many of the dogs needed eye flushes because of the abrasive nature of the dust. Others had minor cuts on their feet that in that environment could have become easily infected.

One man, a police officer from Canada, had heard the news and decided to drive down immediately. He and his large German Shepherd, Ranger, had arrived on the 12th and, within hours, had begun that amazing duet called search-and-rescue work: the dog’s instinct and intense concentration combined with the handler’s keen attention and response to the dog’s cues. Back and forth, over and over, the pair scoured the surface of enormous piles of broken concrete, twisted metal and shattered glass.

When the police officer’s days off from his job at home were finished, he didn’t want to leave what he felt was such important work in New York. He called his police station up in Canada and requested to take his vacation time. They refused his request.

“Then I quit,” he told them and hung up.

When the people in his community heard about this situation, they immediately took up a collection to show their support of this man. The police station received so much flak over their unfortunate decision that they called the man and told him to stay as long as he liked; his job would be waiting.

It was late in the afternoon on the day I arrived in New York when Ranger and his handler came to our triage area. We scrubbed Ranger down and passed him over to the veterinary team. I noticed Ranger’s handler sitting in a chair close by, staring straight ahead. He was a large man and looked like a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rambo—bald head and camouflage fatigues. The adrenaline had finally run out and the reality of the disaster around him was finally catching up with him. He had that look on his face I recognized from the over fifty disasters I’ve witnessed—a look that said, “I don’t think I can do this much longer.”

It was probably the first time the man had sat down in a very long time, and he didn’t look at anyone or talk except to answer questions the veterinarians asked about his dog.

The doctor asked, “When was the last time your dog ate?”

The man answered, “Last night,” in a voice as blank as his face.

Someone put some food in a bowl and placed it at Ranger’s head. The big dog was lying on the pavement and, although he sniffed at the food once or twice, it seemed he was just too exhausted to eat.

I found a dog biscuit, squatted down near the dog, scooped up some of the gravy from the dog food in the bowl and offered it to Ranger. He lifted his head and slowly licked the liquid from the biscuit, so I dunked the biscuit in the bowl again, bringing up a little of the food with the gravy this time. Once more, he licked the food and gravy from the biscuit. I continued “spoon-feeding” Ranger while the triage workers and veterinarians looked on.

While I was feeding Ranger, I had the thought that someone should probably ask Ranger’s handler the same question. After all, we were here to help people, too. When I finished, I turned to ask the man when he had eaten last, but before I could open my mouth, he looked directly at me and said, “Do you know how I get through this?”

I shook my head.

He reached his massive hand into his pocket and pulled out a small plastic baggy with two chocolate kisses, two dog biscuits and a note inside.

I recognized it as one of the “care packages” children at the local school had made for the handlers and their dogs. What could be inside that had sustained the large and powerful man in front of me through this tremendously draining and demanding work? I knew from experience that it would take a lot more than chocolate.

He handed it to me, his eyes bright with tears. “Read it.”

I took out the note, and unfolded it. There, written in a child’s handwriting, were the words, “Thank you for helping to find people. I know Lassie would be so proud of you.”

Terri Crisp
As told to Carol Kline

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