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Pet Stories: In Your Own Words

Tribute To Bella

By: Rita R. Tinsley, D.V.M.

Bella is a female Black Labrador that I originally sold as a puppy to a military family. A year later they were shipping out and could not take her with them. They called me and wanted to know if I wanted her back. I gladly took her back, in 1992. I tried to match her up with other handlers, but she would only keep looking back at me. She would not work for anyone else. I had not planned to be active because my daughter had been diagnosed with cancer, but Bella drew me into it. I work as a small animal veterinarian.

Through the following years, Bella and I became a team in every sense. She went to work with me, slept on the bed, and was a constant companion . We went to every training in search and rescue we could get to, and afford to go to. When Bella was not by my side, something was missing. After my daughter's death, Bella and I kept training: wilderness, cadaver, water, collapsed structure, first responder, helicopter, GPS, weather spotter, earthquake etc. Some people wonder how you can cope with looking for bodies, but after you have witnessed your own child's slow, painful death, you feel you can handle anything. The use of search dogs is widely accepted now, but it was a struggle to get rescue personnel to acknowledge that dogs could be helpful. Bella was a groundbreaker in that area.

Bella and I worked in over 80 searches in 20 counties of Tennessee and Kentucky as professionally trained volunteers. Her first find was a drown victim in the Ohio River. Subsequently she participated in finding over a dozen drown victims. When called in for evidence searches in murder cases, she found evidence in three murder cases. We did not know at the time we were training for disaster in our own country. I thought collapsed structure here would be a result of a tornado or earthquake.

On September 17, 2001 I was called to go help with recovery efforts at the World Trade Center. The call came to a search dog association based in Bowling Green, Kentucky I had worked with for years. NYPD was requesting 5 dog teams and support personnel. Bella was on the selected list. Angel Flight Volunteer Pilots got us there. On September 20, Bella and I got up at 2 AM to prepare and left for Bowling Green Airport for a 6:30 flight. Living in Tennessee we had some distance to go. After shuffling and readjusting gear the prop jet was ready to go. I let Bella board first and pick out her own seat for the flight. I followed with one other person on that plane. I have always found dogs fly better than most people. Bella curled up in her seat and slept. We were too nervous.

We arrived in Newark about 10. We were met by State Police as escorts and the City of New York had sent a Metro bus to pick us up. Highways and bridges were shut down to allow us to pass. Police ahead of us in the City closed off side streets to bring us straight through. We were humbled by the recognition of the importance of the dogs and prayed we would do good. We were taken to Homeport Naval Base on Staten Island. A rec center was the refuge and staging area for volunteers there. A Fire Dept chaplain had made arrangements for our team to stay on a ship, the U.S.S. Denebola, a troop transport ship in the harbor. They kept 24 hour hot food buffet, sandwiches, drinks for us. There was an aisle in the building that was nothing but donated items for the dogs: food, treats, leads, booties, etc. Anything you needed to work was given to you: gloves, tyvek suits, helmets, boots, clothes, anything.

While the New Jersey National Guard was moving us onto the Ship, I was notified they wanted me and Bella on site right away. We climbed into a Guard truck and were on our way, 2 dogs and 4 people. Security at Fresh Kills Landfill was tight and photo Ids required to get in. While there photo Ids were made for the dogs too. We were identified as members of the Canine Recovery Task Force. Approaching the landfill, the dogs of course caught the scent of death first. It was raining and we were huddled in the truck when the dogs' heads shot up, nose in the air. Then we recognized the odor as well, still about half a mile away. After passing the security checkpoint, we rode uphill.

At the top of the hill was a cleared search area, about 3 acres. At this time it was just changing from rescue to recovery. There were a few tents there for investigative agencies, forensics, and K-9's. There was no dry area. We donned Tyvek suits, double boots, gloves, respirators and helmets as water flowed through the prep area. Then there was rain gear over that. It took about 30 minutes to prep the dogs. We chose to pad their tendons with gauze and wrap their paws with vetwrap type bandages. We found that booties pulled off while working. Even the bandages needed frequent redressing. Beyond that all that was used was a collar and lead. We used leads provided there so as not to contaminate our own. We would leave them there when we left.

Heavy equipment was everywhere, bringing in debris, spreading it, and removing it to sifters after being searched on the ground. About 200 investigators worked with us, using rakes and hoes. After they had spread debris out, we took the dogs through. At first it was overwhelming. I felt weighted down with protective equipment. It became increasingly difficult just to move across the area. There were 12 search piles of debris and we would work from pile to pile.

Bella adapted amazingly quickly to the constant roar of the machinery. She waded into the debris with me. Although this was knee high to us, to a dog it is shoulder high and requires much effort. The concrete dust had been wet down and resembled mud. She was used to alerting on a cadaver scent, but it was everywhere here. Alerts became modified. She caught on and started looking for the areas of strongest scent. All dogs were identified by number. Bella was #16. I always ask for help from the victims we are looking for. The debris piles were in circles and I came to think of them as Dante's circles of hell. Bella started to make finds, slowly and diligently. Although very fatiqued as time went by, she kept plugging along. We would have to closely examine visually and by touch areas where the dogs were interested. Bella was making finds and working well.

It kept raining the whole time we were working. At night it resembled scenes from the movie Close Enounters… Everyone in white suits in the lights. After dark, Bella became chilled after working so hard. She was shivering uncontrollably. There was no dry area anywhere. Water was running through the tents. Team members asked the National Guard if they had a pallet we could get her up off the ground. They brought us two pallets. That was true of everything you asked for in New York. You would get double or more of whatever you asked for. I asked if they had any blankets or tarps. They brought us two brand new silk comforters. Once wrapped up and dry, Bella recovered quickly. We made a dais for the dogs in the canine tent so others following could use it too. She had made nine finds that night. It came time for shift change and we decontaminated ourselves: removing protective gear, wiping exposed skin with wipes given us by the Army. Ordinarily we would wash the dogs off with disinfectant shampoo before leaving. I couldn't due to her chill. I obtained enough wipes to go over Bella completely before we left. The Guard furnished us a box of decon wipes to take back to the Ship as well.

We rode back to the Ship in an Army jeep, arriving back about 11PM. We again went through security checks to go onboard at gangplank. Then we went through a hatch, up a long ramp, across another deck half the length of the ship, up steps, through a hatch, and into our quarters behind the deck. We figured it was a half mile walk to a grassy area where the dogs could go. Bella had no accidents and was the perfect lady. I lost eight pounds. We had rooms with one bed for 2 people and 2 dogs. We had brought all our gear so it was easy to make up a second bed in the floor with our pads and sleeping bags. Most important we had showers! Any sheets or towels we used were thrown away as biohazard. They wanted us to go back out at 6 AM, but there was no way. We were exhausted. We crawled into bed together and slept. Sleeping is not a problem when you are exhausted. There were no bad dreams, no nightmares. I had brought my Rosary and kept it with me.

We worked second shift the next day and then back to first shift for two more days. By that time Bella was so tired and so sore she could hardly move. But she would keep going whenever I asked her. None of our dogs got hurt. The only problem they had was soreness. I gave steroids for that being Team Veterinarian as well. The response to the World Trade Center was not life changing for us. We kept doing what we had done at home, just in a different location and on a larger scale. The September 11 events were life changing for us as for all. We felt fortunate to have a skill that could be useful and hoped we helped the people of New York .

Two weeks after returning home, Bella had a cruciate ligament in her knee tear. She had orthopedic surgery in Nashville, greatly discounted in respect for the work she had done. I know the fatique contributed to her injury. She has recovered quite well, but is now retired and has become a lady of leisure.

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