9/11: A Look Back

We all have our stories to tell.

On that bright September morning when the world changed before our eyes, our collective experience was etched into our personal histories in the way that only those truly transformative historical occasions can imprint us:  Pearl Harbor, JFK, 9/11.

Having moved to Manhattan the year before the attacks, I had been going through a not entirely smooth transition from the leafy suburbs of London.  I had been used to driving where I needed to go, having family nearby, and regularly escaping into the vast swaths of greenspace that are scattered throughout the city where I had lived all my life.  Moving to New York City with my husband at the beginning of the millennium had been rewarding in many ways, but I still harbored deep longing for my hometown while somehow slightly resenting New York for not being London.

We were living in a one-bedroom apartment on the 4th floor of an old building in Hell’s Kitchen in September, 2001.  I was working as a dog trainer in and around Manhattan, cutting my teeth in one of the world’s most unique environments for dogs with some of the most colorful clients you could imagine.  The events of 9/11 changed all of us in ways large and small, and for me, one of those small changes was that I truly became a New Yorker.  In the spirit of JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” moment, I believe that peaceful, loving, selfless citizens all over the world became New Yorkers that day.  Just as we all also became Londoners on 7/7 after the train attacks, Indonesians and Japanese after the tsunamis, and Haitians after the earthquake.

Certain events pull us all together and lead us in new and more fruitful directions, sometimes even out of the smoke and rubble of tragedies like those endured at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  For me, in addition to my newfound sense of ownership and pride in my adopted city, those tragic events also provided me a backdrop from which I would build an even greater appreciation of the power and grace of man’s best friend.

Pier 94 on Manhattan's west side served as the Family Assistance Center for victims' loved ones.

In the days and weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center, the West Side Highway along the Hudson River near where we lived became a sort of pipeline for those working through the carnage downtown.  Countless times each hour, a fire truck or bus filled with search and rescue teams hurtled back and forth from Ground Zero down a road lined on both sides with well wishers and those of us who felt compelled to do something – anything.  Many of us who lived nearby felt a constant sense of helplessness – we wanted to be a part of the effort somehow.  Part of our city, country and way of life had been threatened and disrupted, and we needed to help support those who were literally doing the heavy lifting both emotionally and physically.

I was working as a volunteer adoption counselor at New York’s ASPCA during this time, and after investigating what options were available to those of looking to help during those dark days, I ended up at Pier 94 on the Hudson River.  FEMA, the Red Cross, and other organizations set up areas within the massive pier to organize the search for missing persons, and the ASPCA began the task of rehoming animals whose owners had died in the tragedy, as well as coordinating the large number of therapy dogs that came to provide comfort for the victims’ families.  My job was to organize which dogs would accompany the families on the boats making daily trips from the pier down the Hudson River to Ground Zero.  It was a chance for the families to remember their loved ones and to throw flowers and wreaths into the river in their memory.

Photo credit Patrick Schneider - Charlotte Observer

I had been aware of and even worked with a few therapy dogs before 9/11, but the days I spent witnessing the immense power of these dogs as they poured themselves out for the bereaved was truly amazing, and served as the inspiration for what eventually became my charitable foundation.

Therapy dogs bring comfort and companionship to people in all kinds of situations, helping the elderly, the sick and the disabled, relieving their pain and anxiety.  A therapy dog must be calm, confident, patient and enjoy meeting and being touched by strangers.   It is well documented that dogs improve a person’s health by lowering blood pressure, relieving anxiety and boosting immunity.  Playing with a dog can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, nerve transmitters that promote pleasure and calm.  According to several studies, heart attack patients that have pets survive longer than those without and male pet owners in particular have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels, two key components of heart disease.  But even beyond the physiological chemistry of how it all works, to watch a therapy dog bring the first smile to the face of a boy who had lost his father in the towers was witness to a heartwarming mini-miracle.

Photo Credit Andrea Booher, FEMA

The dogs who served during and after 9/11 were shining examples of what have become known as hero dogs. 

As we reflect on the loss we suffered on that fateful day and how it changed the world we live in, I think it’s also important to look forward and try to identify whatever positives we can glean from the wreckage. We will never forget what happened that day, nor those who gave their lives then and in the years that have followed so that we can live in freedom.

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.


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