When the Search Is Over, continued


They came from California, from New Jersey, and places in-between, to search for the living, and then for the dead. As many as 300 dogs and their handlers took part in the rescue-and-recovery effort prompted by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many of the volunteers brought years of training and experience; others brought only good intentions.

Dr. Cindy Otto, a Penn Veterinary School professor who was on hand to care for some of the dogs in the first days after September 11, wondered what effects the intense search, the long working hours, and the exposure to numerous, potentially harmful chemicals would have on the canines. That curiosity led her to become lead investigator in a three-year, $330,000 study—the first to look at the long-term health and well being of search-and-rescue dogs and their human handlers. Working as co-investigator on the human side of the equation is Dr. Melissa Hunt G’90 Gr’96, an associate professor in Penn’s psychology department.

Using data on 101 of the deployed dogs and 70 of the handlers, the two professors hope their study—sponsored largely by a grant from the American Kennel Club Health Foundation—will reveal any health risks associated with working at disaster sites of this magnitude as well as ways to make this work safer; offer insight into the bonds between dogs and their handlers; and provide clues about why some people respond to traumatic events with resilience while others struggle long after with feelings of depression or anxiety.

The first year of data collection and analysis has not turned up a pattern of health problems in the dogs—though this certainly could change over time; researchers also are surprised by the low numbers of human handlers meeting clinical guidelines for post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, to date.


Otto was working in her office at the School of Veterinary Medicine the morning of September 11, when the phone rang. It was her husband, relaying the news that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center complex. “I told him I knew I’d be going” to New York, she recalls. That night, the associate professor of critical care in the Department of Clinical Studies left Philadelphia with 61 human volunteers from Pennsylvania Task Force One and four dogs.

In the past, her official role with the task force, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s network of trained urban search-and-rescue groups, has been as a technical-information specialist, documenting everything through photography and written reports. It bothered her, however, that FEMA traditionally has relied on physicians, instead of veterinarians, to provide medical care for the dogs at a rescue site. Because Otto’s task force traveled by ground to New York, however, it was able to take some extra support specialists. “They brought me along strictly to take care of the dogs, which turned out to be a really valuable thing.”

For eight nights, Otto put on her safety boots, strapped on her helmet, and walked out onto the rubble, which was lit up like a movie set, to start her 12-hour shifts at Ground Zero. “This is a bad movie,” she thought. “It just didn’t seem real.” Easier for her to fathom are the canine blood test and X-ray results that now fill a long filing cabinet drawer in her campus office.

Otto’s main job at Ground Zero was preventive medicine. “We flushed [the dogs’] eyes anytime they came off the [rubble] pile, and checked their feet for cuts and scrapes. The other really important thing, which was hard to do, was enforcing rest and drinking, and giving the dogs a chance to be in a place that was quiet and not stressful.”

Though the dogs under Otto’s care never required fluid therapy, she says, dehydration was a problem for many others. One of the dogs in her task force, a Labrador retriever named Bear, “likes Kool Aid, so he would drink Kool-Aid wherever. But some of the dogs were just too worked up” to drink anything. Other dogs sustained cuts to their unprotected paws, and one dog collapsed after inhaling dust in its lungs.

Everyone, dogs and human volunteers, was overworked, observed Otto. “There was such a need to find victims that every time you turned around, people were screaming for a dog.”

The humans and dogs that worked in the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—and those involved in searching for body parts in the wreckage taken to the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island (all three groups are being studied by Otto)—potentially were exposed to numerous hazardous materials, from lead and mercury to asbestos and PCBs. On top of that was the concrete dust that blanketed everything.

As she monitors the dogs’ health over the next several years, Otto will look for increased incidences of particular diseases—data that would help the dogs and provide an early alert to health officials about the need for screening human dog handlers and other rescue workers. “The data is still pending statistical analysis, but we have not identified any clinically significant abnormalities in the bloodwork or radiographs to date,” Otto says. “There are a few dogs that have had problems, but we cannot be certain if the problems are related to the work at the World Trade Center.” One dog that worked at the Fresh Kills landfill, for example, continues to have a chronic cough, but it’s unclear at this point whether the condition is directly related to the landfill work. Another dog had to be euthanized for a bone tumor in its leg and an additional dog was euthanized after contracting a fungal infection in her spine. Again there is no evidence the diseases resulted from work at Ground Zero, she says. Time will reveal more.

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Top: Psychologist Melissa Hunt G’90 Gr’96. Middle: Sept. 11 volunteer and Amtrak Police dog, Ronnie handled by Dave Lee. Above: Veterinary School professor Cindy Otto, at the examining table with Ronnie and Willow, a FEMA dog handled by Bobbie Snyder.


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Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 9/02/02