9/11 rescue dogs honored at Marin pet fair

September 10, 2011

Marin Independent Journal, Paul Liberatore

There were hundreds of dogs at the opening of the Bay Area Pet Fair and Adoptathon in San Rafael on Saturday, including Tillman, YouTube's sensational skateboarding bulldog. But the real celebrity canine was a 14-year-old black lab named Jessie, one of only a handful of rescue dogs still alive that searched for survivors and victims of the World Trade Center attacks after 9/11.

Jessie, who worked on the smoldering pile for two weeks, was honored along with two other rescue dogs in a ceremony on an outdoor stage at the Marin County Fairgrounds.

When he was introduced to a round of applause and a large photo of him working on the remains of the Twin Towers was shown to the crowd, Jessie barked appreciatively. Several times.

"He's retired and doesn't get out very much these days," explained his handler, Mike Taul, a Novato Fire Department engineer. "He's excited, so he's pretty loud today."

Sept. 11 sparked the largest deployment of working dogs in the country's history. Of the thousands pressed into service, Jessie is one of only 12 still living.

"It's an honor to have him," Taul said. "There aren't many of these dogs left."

Jessie worked the World Trade Center site and Hurricane Katrina‚Äč with his original Sacramento-based handler, who passed him along to Taul when he retired. Taul, who is attached to Marin County Regional Task Force One and Oakland's FEMA task force, when on to handle Jessie in the rescue efforts for hurricanes Ike and Gustav in 2008.

"He performed excellently," Taul said as Jessie lay quietly on the grass at his feet. "He's been trained to a high standard and he's kept to that high standard."

A year and a half ago, Jessie was retired from active duty and now spends his days with Taul's family at their home in Pleasant Hill.

"It's kind of Easy Street for him," Taul said with a smile, pointing out the gray that now covers most of Jessie's muzzle. "He's actually doing pretty well for his age. His mind is still all there, but his legs can't do it anymore."

Lynne Englebert, a member of the Canine Specialized Search Team in Santa Clara, was also honored for working in the rubble of the Twin Towers with her border collie, Lucy, who died in 2006 at age 15 1/2. Englebert, who lives in Saratoga, was at Saturday's ceremony with her new dog, Sweep, but held a large photograph of Lucy, who also worked the Oklahoma City bombing and the Space Shuttle Columbia recovery mission with her.

"She's still here in my heart," Englebert said. "She was quite the old gal."

After 9/11, Steven Hilts decided that he needed to do something for his country, so he became a search and rescue dog trainer and handler in his hometown of Salinas. On Saturday, he and his dog, Daisy, were recognized for their search and rescue work in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Ernesto and Gustav.

"Less than 50 percent of the dogs trained for search and rescue actually make it," he said, gazing proudly at Daisy. "Luckily she worked out."

Poster-sized photos of the three dogs will be shown at Pet Food Express stores. Some 55 pet shelter/rescue organizations are participating in the two-day fair, hosted by the Marin Humane Society and Pet Food Express. Billing the event as "the largest pet adoption weekend ever in the North Bay, "organizers are hoping that more than 200 pets will be adopted by closing at 5 p.m. on Sunday.

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