Search and recover

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Feb 01, 2007


Sifting through the rubble: Dr. Rita Tinsley and her search and rescue dog, Bella, at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The first time I went out on a drowning search, my search and rescue dog, Bella, tracked down the victim. That's when it hit me: This works. At that moment, search and rescue became real and exciting for me.

In 1992, I founded the Stewart County K9 Search and Rescue Unit. We train a few days a week, but I also live with the dogs to build a bond with them. My son Joe is our training officer. In the past 15 years, my unit has worked searches for missing people in 30 counties in Tennessee and Kentucky. Drown recovery has become my specialty. I've helped locate 25 drowning victims.

The FBI appointed me site veterinarian of the World Trade Center Canine Recovery Task Force. I had worked at recovering bodies for several years, so I was prepared to deal with death investigation. Security was so tight that even our dogs needed photo IDs. We were to look for remains, ID cards, weapons, computer memory, and the airplane's black box. I could grasp the material destruction, but not how many deaths that included. We usually have a description of who we're looking for, but this time it was anything human.

I also responded in Hancock County, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina. Although most people in this area had evacuated, we did find one person who needed help. What was striking was that dead animals were everywhere: a 10-foot alligator, squirrels, dogs, cats, deer, hogs, songbirds, chickens, snakes—everything was dead.

Despite the frustration that often comes with this work, the gratitude of the families when their loved ones are found makes the challenges worth it.

—Rita Tinsley, DVM
Animal Clinic of Stewart County, Tennessee