December 9, 2022

9/11 Rescue Dogs: ‘Godsend’

On September 11, 2001, thousands of animals were abandoned by their owners in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York City. Among them were nearly 300 search-and-rescue dogs that had been deployed to help find survivors at Ground Zero.
They weren’t just abandoned–they were forgotten about. Left alone with no food or water to fend for themselves, they would have died if it weren’t for a small group of people who decided not to let that happen.

“It’s absolutely amazing that anybody survived,” said Dr. Sheila MacNair, a psychotherapist who was working in her office near the site of the World Trade Center when the towers collapsed.

She spent several days at Ground Zero trying to help survivors cope with their trauma and eventually started volunteering for disaster-relief work.

Meanwhile, a former K-9 officer named Alyce Zaftig was running a nonprofit called Rescue Dogs Rock NYC that placed retired search dogs with families. She had just started it a month earlier, and many of the dogs in her program were from around New York City. So when people began asking for help finding their missing pets, Zaftig reached out to them and offered to help.

Soon she was hearing from people who had seen the dogs at Ground Zero, including someone who worked for a company that was using its helicopters to haul supplies and rescue workers around. “He called me and said ‘I’m here at Ground Zero and there’s maybe four or five dead dogs,'” Zaftig recalled. “I got very upset and I said, ‘How can you say that? They’re not dead.'”

“They were scattered everywhere,” she added. Many of them were badly injured. Zaftig’s friend told her to talk to Aly Hazan , who worked for the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the organization that was managing the rescue effort. Hazan told her that the dogs would be rescued and taken care of, but Zaftig was skeptical.“I said ‘you can’t promise me’,” he recalls. But what Hazan promised came true—he helped coordinate efforts to locate the dogs (most of whom were Labradors or golden retrievers) and bring them to a veterinary clinic set up for rescue workers.

“It was a titanic effort,” said Dr. Elizabeth Rozanski, one of the vets who volunteered at that clinic. “We stayed 24 hours a day and were there as long as we could be. The dogs received food and water but mostly attention from the people working on them.

“Every dog got a hug,” said Zaftig. “They were so happy to have any kind of affection. An official from the ASPCA oversaw their recovery and eventually arranged for them to be transferred to shelters around the country that specialized in placing retired search dogs.

When MacNair’s friend Joe Bender heard about this, he was upset. He had been looking for his golden retriever, Salty, since he escaped from his backyard during the attacks. “I was angry that they pulled all these dogs out of there,” he said. But when MacNair told him about how many animals were rescued, and where they had gone, he changed his mind: “I was relieved because they were alive.

Bender is now Salty’s adoptive dad, and the dog lives with his family in New Jersey. “I think about those people that found our dogs and how important it was for them to find these animals,” he said. “They’ve inspired me that there’s a lot of good out there. Zaftig also thinks a lot about those people—the volunteers who rescued the dogs and gave them a second chance at life.

She wants to honor their memories by doing more for animals in need. “I want to thank all of these people that helped because I don’t think it will ever happen again,” she said.