Heroes with Paws | Columns

Heroes with Paws | Columns

In the past two weeks, I’ve been accidentally co-opted into two “appreciation parades” driving past hospitals here in Albuquerque.

It’s a moving sight to witness, and pretty cool to be a part of — even if you didn’t mean to be. In the grassy yard in front of the old Lovelace Medical Center are 3-foot tall cut-out letters on posts that read “Heroes Work Here.” Indeed.

Colleen Dougherty

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. On TIME’s Published List of Top 10 Animal Heroes are two cats, four dogs, a dolphin, two horses, and a pigeon (yes, a pigeon.)

Cher Ami, one of the 200,000 pigeons who carried messages to military personnel during WWI and WWII was shot in the breast and leg during his 12th mission. He continued to fly, delivered his message, and lived to tell.

Some of these heroes saved their own, like Scarlett, the cat, who carried each of her five kittens out of a burning building in Brooklyn in 1996. Although she continued to be burned with each trip, she never gave up.

The firefighter who witnessed this watched her while she finally “counted” her babies with the touch of her nose (her eyes were burned shut) and then collapsed. He rescued all of them, and Scarlett lived till 2008 with her doting new mom.

In New Zealand in 2008, Moko the dolphin “talked” a beached pygmy whale and her calf into turning around and following her out to sea after human attempts had failed.

Russell hasn’t made the list yet, but he may someday. It took his guardian four days to find him in the rubble of their burnt home.

While healing at the Animal Emergency Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, the little orange cat began greeting, visiting and soothing the souls of other injured animals – including a baby deer. Staff literally had to put Russell into his kennel every day to rest, so determined was he to tend to his suffering friends.

There are those who have come to the aid of their human relatives. No. 6 on TIME’s list is Trakr, the German Shepherd from Canada who found the last survivor of 9/11, Janelle Guzman, trapped under the rubble for 27 hours.

Trakr was one of more than 300 dogs who, alongside rescue workers at the Twin Towers, searched diligently and for long hours looking for survivors, and eventually the remains of the almost 3,000 victims.

Some were search and rescue, some were cadaver dogs, and some, like Nike the therapy dog, came to soothe the souls of rescue workers, who, described in a September 2011 article in the Telegraph “have the exhausted, dying-eyed look of an army — if not of the damned, then of an innocence damned.”

Nike’s handler, Frank Shane, recalls seeing the “stone faced” firefighters light up when they’d see a dog waiting for them.

The dogs listened as they poured out their stories, offering unconditional love and compassion, nonjudgment and “something familiar” in the face of something so surreal.

The SAR dogs, too, ended up needing some therapy. Trained to find survivors, many became depressed within days because there were no live survivors to be found.

One dog, Worf, “a German Shepherd with a gentle soul,” found the remains of two firefighters on the first day and had to be retired immediately. He stopped eating and “just shut down,” said his handler Mike Owens.

Workers took turns hiding and allowing the dogs to “find” them so they could have the satisfaction of a live find. This activity, the on-site veterinary care and the appreciation of all the workers kept the dogs going, and as the last line of the documentary Hero Dogs of 9/11 says, “all they asked for in return was a little rest.”

Many of the 9/11 dogs continued their SAR careers looking for hikers in the High Sierras, the wilderness of Tennessee and some in hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

One of them was Bretagne, who at two years old served her first ever deployment at the Twin Towers, and in 2015 was the last 9/11 dog to pass away.

“They never gave up,” …said just about everyone.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, people have adopted, fostered, and rescued animals, and paid more attention to those they already had.

Among the many things we might learn from this is a hope shared by many that the value of animals as our companions, especially in times of chaos and stress, has not gone unnoticed by us as a civilization.

Indeed, there are many heroes among us.

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