9/11, search and rescue, and shelter dogs as heroes

Harley with handler Rob Cima at Ground Zero.

Originally published in September 2011:

Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Across the nation, ceremonies are planned to remember loved ones lost and to honor individuals who acted so incredibly heroically in the hours and days following the tragedy.

Thirteen of those heroes came from the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) in Ojai, California. Search dogs are invaluable in such missions, as their powerful sense of smell can lead rescue workers directly to trapped or immobilized victims. The World Trade Center site was still smoldering when SDF Retriever Harley and his handler, Rob Cima, arrived. The two worked as part of a team covering “100 square blocks from Ground Zero, with debris piled eleven stories high.”

If you think SDF dogs are highly trained, intelligent, and focused, you’re correct. But if you think they were born and bred into such a role, you’re mistaken. Wilma Melville founded SDF in 1996, and the dogs in her program are recruited from shelters around the country. They’re matched with handlers from participating fire departments and trained to perform vital tasks outside the capacity of the human nose.

These “throw-away” animals — once abandoned and unwanted — are now part of life-saving search and rescue teams. They’ve proven their indispensability not only in 9/11 efforts, but in Haiti and Japan and with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And true to its aim, Melville’s foundation has been saving lives without breeding or adding to the current population of animals. According to Janet Reineck, development director for SDF, “Many of [the recruited dogs] are 24 hours away from euthanasia.”

We’re not the only ones impressed with Wilma Melville’s values and dedication. She’s is among the list of CNN heroes, and is eligible to be Hero of the Year for 2012.

Meanwhie, from the SDF Mission Statement:

Search Dog Foundation founder Wilma Melville with Dusty

“We ensure lifetime care for every dog in our program: once rescued, these dogs never need to be rescued again.”