Good Dog

New York -- After hours spent searching for signs of life within the rubble of the World Trade Center yesterday, Kermit Durhman was badly dehydrated.

He worked his way over to the medical tent and stretched out as a doctor gingerly poked him with an intravenous line. Kermit winced, then relaxed as the doctor massaged his tender feet and stroked his pointy ears.

Kermit looked up, clearly relieved, and thumped his tail in thanks. "Good dog," Dr. Kim Rosenthal said, patting the 5-year-old German shepherd as his handler, firefighter Merlin Durhman, looked on. Kermit is among the 300 rescue dogs toiling at "ground hero," crawling over, around and through the towering pile of wreckage to the point of exhaustion. Veterinarians say the dogs seem to sense the enormity of the devastation before them. They are so dedicated to their jobs that some have been spotted dragging their handlers toward the smoldering rubble.

"They work so hard and understand how very important their task is," Rosenthal said. It is a grueling task indeed. The dogs emerge coated in grit and grime, their noses stinging with the stench of smoke and death. Some limp out on bloodied paws. Others wind up dehydrated, or with eyes clouded by dust.

As Rosenthal talked, Kermit rested beneath the sprawling olive drab tent some have dubbed "Doggy MASH." He looked tired, and his left front paw jutted out awkwardly, the result of a puppyhood injury that has not affected his ability to work. "He can climb a ladder better than I can," Durhman said. "We never told Kermit about his deformed paw, so he just goes about his business." Not far away, vets examined Presidio Dutch, a black Labrador retriever from San Francisco. They cleaned his eyes, swabbed his ears and drew blood from his paw to ensure his blood-sugar level wasn't too low. The routine is lovingly performed on each dog.

Many of the vets were sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but others, like Rosenthal, are volunteers who don scrubs after finishing work at their own clinics. Doggy MASH provides everything they need, including a surgical suite and a full-service laboratory -- and donors have sent truckloads of supplies.

The dogs toiling amid the wreckage are mostly German shepherds, chosen for the task because of their excellent agility and resiliency. There are also several retrievers and Labs, Dobermans, a handful of Rottweillers and a smattering of mutts. The majority are recovery dogs, trained to ferret out the slightest human scent. But in a sign that hope of finding more survivors is fading fast, many are being replaced by cadaver dogs trained to find bodies.

As crews make steady progress clearing wreckage from lower Manhattan, teams of dogs are following it to nearby landfills to continue their search for human remains. It is a grim task that is expected to take weeks, but one that the dogs -- and their handlers -- are determined to finish.

At the end of each day, they'll find an army of veterinarians eager to treat their wounds and soothe their psyches with baths and hugs. "If one of these dogs needs suturing," Rosenthal said, "then I feel as though I am helping out in the best way I can."

Margaret A. Woodbury is a NY Chronicle columnist

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