I will never forget the stranger on the bus with the radio who stated emphatically that the twin towers had collapsed. Nor my 100% certitude that she was crazy and simply seeking attention. “That’s not possible,” I replied. Then minutes later, I witnessed it myself on the large TV screens in Times Square. We all watched in silence, a New York City bus jam-packed with people. I continued to my office on autopilot, having been thwarted earlier in my attempt to vote in the primaries and take the subway, which had never arrived.
I lost little but my innocence and sense of security on September 11. I didn’t live downtown, where it felt like a war zone. There was only one night when the wind shifted the putrid smells in another direction and I came closer to the horror of what had happened. I didn’t have a pet at the time. That was one less worry to plague me.
But this wasn’t the case for pet owners who worked and lived near Ground Zero. Or for the rescue organizations who rushed in to help. With recent disaster preparedness on my mind (an earthquake, a hurricane), I reached out to the ASPCA to find out more about what it was like to be on the front lines of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
What happened to the stranded pets?
It was September 14, 2001. Gail Buchwald of the ASPCA remembers the date vividly because it was the first day her organization was finally allowed access to what essentially had been declared a crime scene, where neither vehicle nor pedestrian traffic had been permitted. The ASPCA’s phone lines had been flooded with frantic calls about pets that had been left alone, stranded in apartments.
“You have no idea,” Buchwald said. “Dogs, cats, rabbits, turtles and guinea pigs without electricity, food, water…Many of the windows had been blown in from the impact. There were high levels of alarm about how the animals were doing.” She recounted how one agent had climbed seventeen flights of stairs to rescue a lizard in a tank. “There were children,” she said, “and they desperately wanted their pet lizard back.”
Where were the pets?
Cats, climbers that they are, were frequently found on roofs. Dogs sought ground level, either seeking refuge in the basement or out on the street where they were accustomed to walking outside. Animals were roaming free in buildings because first-responders had knocked down doors searching for people, not having time to put the doors back up. As pets will hide, they weren’t always found on the first go-round.
The agency had its hands full managing the hundreds of calls that came in, organizing the calls by block and by building, gathering information about the pets (such as their favorite hiding places) and prioritizing the animals that were medically compromised. The ASPCA set up a mobile outreach clinic program near Ground Zero and provided medical care to 300 animals.
How many pets were rescued?
The ASPCA reports that it rescued 200 animals and reunited them with their owners. Of these, roughly 30 animals were fostered by trained ASPCA volunteers as there were pets whose owners were hospitalized and pets whose owners could not take them to temporary housing. All told, 25 pets that were rescued by the agency and had been left homeless as a result of 9/11 — for a variety of circumstances including their owners’ relocation after home loss, loss of business, and loss of life — needed to be adopted by new owners.
Gwen Cooper, who worked and lived within six blocks of the World Trade Center, was evacuated from work on 9/11 only to find that she couldn’t return to her apartment for nearly three days. She was concerned about her three cats having enough food and water, but most of all she was anxious about her blind cat Homer, as she lived on a very high floor that could be subjected to flying debris and thus broken windows. She says that the ASPCA was instrumental in pairing her and other pet owners with volunteers who led them past the police barricades and back to their homes. She recounts this harrowing time, and Homer’s happier adventures, in her New York Times Bestseller, Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat.
So following September 11th, what lessons can be learned?
1) Access to water is essential. The ASPCA’s primary concerns had been dehydration and respiratory distress as the air quality had been severely compromised. The animals who fared the best had free access to water. Buchwald recommends leaving the toilet seat cover up (not the seat itself — sorry, men!) for another source of water, as long as you avoid using toxic cleaners. An alternative to consider is a dispenser that provides a week’s supply of water.
2) Pet collars with tags are key. A microchip is always a good idea, but a visible pet collar with tags gives a rescuer the contact information that’s needed right away. I don’t know about you, but we’ve been known to take the dog’s collar off inside so he doesn’t get too hot. No more. Buchwald says that since September 11th, her cat has worn tags inside the apartment. I also keep my pet’s collar on in the car in case of an accident.
3) Have pet carriers readily on hand. The ASPCA rescue teams found that dog owners had leashes but cat owners didn’t always have carriers readily accessible. See if you can store them where you can easily grab them versus stowing them away too well.
4) Therapy pets can perform an invaluable service during disasters. Stephanie LaFarge, PHD, Senior Director of Counseling Services at the ASPCA, organized the presence of therapy dogs at the Family Assistance Center on Pier 94 following the attacks. Not only did they comfort bereaved family members, they also helped the military, police, and support staff. ”There’s nothing like a dog wagging its tail to tell you the sky isn’t falling,” says LaFarge. She adds that 9/11 was the first time that therapy dogs were allowed by FEMA and the Red Cross at a disaster site. Disaster planning has also evolved to provide solutions for people’s pets so they don’t have to be left behind.
5) People will rally together in times of distress. The agency’s call lines were virtually paralyzed with calls to help. Some offered to walk dogs, others to feed cats, still others wanted to adopt. “We had an outpouring of people who wanted to adopt a World Trade Center pet,” said Buchwald. “From around the country. The attacks left so many people feeling helpless. This offered an opportunity to feel connected with what was going on, to help an animal, and to be part of the recovery process.” The agency received so much food — in many cases sent by individuals — that it was able to donate leftover food to needy pet owners, other shelters, and rescue groups.
How can we turn this day of tragedy into one of community service?
Whether you choose to take part in the national day of service on September 11, or any other day of the year, consider signing up for the ASPCA’s volunteer program or that of your local animal shelter, or with another cause you hold dear.
Share your story: Where were you on September 11th? Ten years later, will you be doing anything in particular to commemorate the anniversary?