Read how shelter dogs who were pulled from impending euthanasia are saving lives as search-and-rescue heroes in disaster-stricken places like Haiti. Don’t you just love stories about animal heroes – especially those who were almost given up on? This story from the New York Times will make your heart soar.– Global Animal
By GUY TREBAY, New York Times
So a dog walks into a bar. Honestly, no joke. The dog is a German shepherd and he’s not just any dog, he’s a hero. He’s a shelter dog saved from a pound as a puppy and destined for euthanasia until some alert human spotted a spark in him — some cleverness, some drive — and set in motion a series of events that led to him becoming a search-and-rescue animal. Now he is one of those dogs you sometimes see in the news, snout to the rubble in the wreckage of disasters in Haiti, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, at ground zero.
The dog is named Cassius. The bar is Lady Jay’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Cassius comes into the place like he owns it, like he’s known there, and he is. It is the last day of an unseasonal heat wave, and as Cassius enters he automatically lopes past the long wood bar itself, making for the backyard deck. Circling the space to give it a once-over, he concludes that all is well and flops down in a furry heap.
“Cassius, when he’s working, is total concentration,” said Peter Taft, who follows the dog into the place. “He definitely has an ‘off’ switch, though.”
Cassius, when he’s working, finds people in wreckage. That is why the American Kennel Club just gave him its Humane Fund Award for Canine Excellence. He is one of five dogs to receive the award this year, but only he has sniffed out signs of life after the January earthquake in Haiti, in Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city.
He keeps company with Mr. Taft, a rock ’n’ roll and fashion photographer who also happens to have advanced certification in many aspects of emergent and austere medicine. On this particular day Mr. Taft is wearing a beat-up straw hat, a bushy ginger beard and scruffy jeans. The black polish on his fingernails is chipping. His look — remnant CBGB rocker washed ashore among skinny-jean hipsters of Williamsburg — lends credence to Mr. Taft’s assertion that, growing up as an “art geek” in Manhattan, he never saw himself as a search-and-rescue kind of guy.
“I didn’t think that was me,” he said, referring to the rescue experts he, like so many others, first became aware of in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. “I remember seeing them hand the dogs up into the building” to sniff for bodies, he said. (The bombing claimed 168 lives, including those of 19 children.) “I thought that kind of work was for tougher guys than me.”
A child of lawyers, Mr. Taft was born in Manhattan, raised on the Upper East Side and educated at boarding school. He graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a bachelor’s degree in theater. His credentials are hardly indicators of a future spent hanging out with members of the 82nd Airborne Division in post-earthquake Haiti.
And that is where Cassius comes in. Like every hero, canine or otherwise, Cassius has his own narrative trajectory. Rescued at a Milwaukee animal shelter by someone who spotted a quality in the small “goofball puppy,” the German shepherd was sent at two months to the Northwest K9 Academy in Seattle to begin training as a work animal. There he was discovered and adopted by Mr. Taft, who had been inspired to involve himself in training dogs for rescue work by another German shepherd, this one belonging to a friend, the blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer.
Mr. Weihenmayer, who has climbed the highest peaks on seven continents, once characterized his relationship to his dog, Wizard, like this: Weihenmayer is the big-picture guy, Wizard the detail man. Like every dog hero, Wizard and Cassius surpass the ordinary expectations of dogs as chattel or faithful, trusted servants. They belong to a category of animal partners that, if not altogether equal to humans, share some of Homo sapiens’s better qualities. For Wizard, Mr. Weihenmayer said of his dog, guiding a blind man was the canine equivalent of becoming president. Cassius, Mr. Taft said, seems almost fated for the work he does searching for survivors in a disaster’s aftermath.
“Once he grew into his potential, there was no limit to his dedication,” he said of his dog. “His work ethic is just incredibly strong.”
Cassius’ particular specialty is as a live-find animal: dogs that sound an alert when they sense signs of life undetectable by other means. It was his work in Haiti that led an independent judging panel to single Cassius out from among hundreds of nominees for the ACE award, which will be conferred on Cassius Oct. 16 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, said Lisa Peterson, a kennel club spokeswoman.
“It’s basically a celebration of the work of the dog and the actions of the dog, as well as a way to celebrate the incredible canine-human bond,” Ms. Peterson said.
Live finds were few in Haiti, Mr. Taft said. Typical of his experience there was a morning alert that an aftershock had sent a group of houses tumbling into a ravine. “There was a possibility of a 2- or 3-year-old at the bottom of the pit and a baby sitter,” he said, and as he spoke, it took much imagination to transport this hipster with chipped nail varnish and his sleek pet slumped on the deck of a bar to a distant ravine in a disaster-ravaged country.
Mr. Taft and Cassius joined a convoy of pickups, with military Humvees at the front and rear, and drove to the crater. There, man and dog descended a 12-foot-ladder, Cassius slung across Mr. Taft’s shoulders. As it happened, the pit was less a rescue scene than a grave; there were no survivors. “But we were able to ID the 8- or 9-year-old baby-sitter’s cadaver, ” Mr. Taft said, as well as what he chillingly termed the “viable remains” of a 2-year-old.
“In Haiti, I saw with my own eyes Cassius and Peter save a man from under a rock, and that’s heroic,” Cmdr. James Robinson, a retired New York City firefighter who is known as Rocky, said of the pair. Mr. Robinson is executive director of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps, the nonprofit that Mr. Taft accompanied to Haiti on a plane lent to the group by a Scientologist movie star. Back at the top that day in Haiti, Mr. Taft rewarded Cassius the same way he always does. How is that, he was asked.
“With a Vienna sausage,” he said, and at the sound of that the dog on the deck of the bar pricked up his ears.
“Next to a Subway hero,” Mr. Taft said, “Vienna sausage is his favorite thing in the world.”