Outside a Cypress (Texas) strip mall on Monday, about a dozen members of the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department stood at attention, saluting as a shaggy 16-year-old golden retriever named Bretagne walked past them with a limp.
Accompanied by her handler of 16 years, the dog sniffed a bush on her way into a red-brick animal hospital.
Inside, Bretagne was euthanized after a battle with debilitating symptoms of old age – arthritis, almost certainly, and maybe cancer, too.
Putting a dog down is one of the most difficult things that any family must do, but this wasn’t just any dog.
Bretagne, a retired 10-year canine member of the Cy-Fair department, is believed to have been the last living search-and-rescue dog to comb the wreckage of Ground Zero for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In the traumatic days, weeks and months after 9/11, these dogs logged long days alongside search-and-rescue units at the World Trade Center site. Few victims were found alive, but the dogs proved invaluable in sniffing out human remains during the monthslong search operation that followed.
Dr. Cynthia Otto, a veterinarian and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, arrived at Ground Zero on the night of Sept. 11, 2001. She spent 10 days there, working 12-hour night shifts to care for many of the 300 search-and-rescue dogs that streamed in from across the country.
Otto first met Bretagne and her handler, Denise Corliss of the Texas search and rescue unit, there. But Otto kept up with the dog for years as part of a long-term study of the Ground Zero canines.
“She was one of those old souls,” Otto said. “She was not over-the-top crazy, but she had the energy she needed to do the job. She just gave of herself to be there, and to be an amazing partner for Denise.”
Photos provided by the department show Bretagne (pronounced Brittany) peering into her handler’s eyes at a search site and posing with a smiling, uniformed Corliss. Corliss was described as “inconsolable” Monday.
“Some may say that the most a dog could be is a pet. However, to the over 400 members of the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department, Bretagne was a civil servant, a hero and is family,” the department said in a statement afterward.
A somber assembly
First responders started gathering outside the Fairfield Animal Hospital at about 3:30 p.m. Over the next hour, 20 or 30 assembled. The honor guard arrived a little after 4 o’clock and started to put on their uniforms: firetruck-red ascots and shoulder cords, brightly shined black shoes and belts, and spotless white gloves.
No one seemed to know quite what to say. Burly firemen and police officers grasped each other’s hands in long handshakes accompanied by meaningful looks – stoic demonstrations of sorrow.
There were many such moments of sorrow at Ground Zero – the very first assignment for Bretagne – where 343 firefighters and paramedics lost their lives, according to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. They were among some 2,750 people killed in New York alone.
Just weeks after her second birthday, the golden retriever came from Texas with Corliss to relieve the earliest waves of first responders.
At 4:20 p.m. Monday, a dozen firefighters formed a long line in their blue Class A uniforms. They waited in the hot sun to pay their final respects.
“She touched every station,” Cy-Fair VFD Chief Amy Ramon said a half-hour before Bretagne’s final walk. Ramon started to tear up. She tugged her polarized sunglasses back over her eyes. “She’s a part of the Cy-Fair family.”
“At some point, they all become our dogs,” said fellow handler Rebecca Pennington, who came dressed in black.
Wonderful with children
Shelley Swedlaw, a member of the canine search unit, said Bretagne still knew the tricks of the search-and-rescue trade even after she started volunteering at a local elementary school three years ago, offering a non-judgmental ear to first-graders learning to read and working with autistic children.
A few weeks ago, Bretagne’s handler brought her for one more visit, to say goodbye.
“She never forgot the game,” Swedlaw said with tears lining her eyes. “She never stopped being of service.”
Pennington nodded in agreement. For every handler, she added, there’s that “once-in-a-lifetime” dog. For Denise Corliss and her firefighter husband, Randy, that dog was Bretagne.
There is a growing recognition of the role that dogs play in situations ranging from search and rescue to wartime. Three years ago, the country’s first national monument recognizing the sacrifices of dogs in combat was dedicated by the U.S. military at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Bretagne was a finalist in 2014 for the American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Award because of her work after 9/11 and other disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
At that point, there were still a few other living Ground Zero dogs. Bretagne outlived a golden retriever’s life expectancy of 10 or 11 years; she would have turned 17 on Aug. 25.
There’s no way to be sure Bretagne is the last survivor of the 9/11 search dogs, Otto said. “But we can be pretty convinced.”
At 4:35 p.m., the survivor pulled up to her longtime vet’s clinic in the backseat of the Corlisses’ four-door tan pickup, which has a bright-red Cy-Fair VFD sticker on its back window. Denise Corliss opened the door for Bretagne; Randy Corliss picked her up and gingerly placed her aging frame on the ground.
A final look back
Bretagne didn’t look around much. She walked trustingly with her handler past the line of firefighters, her tail swinging limply. Then she stopped. She turned her snout toward the low bush beside the sidewalk, taking a sniff.
She crossed the threshold of the vet’s office. Through the window, she looked back outside toward the gathering of firefighters and friends, with a look that might seem like a smile.
About 30 minutes later, the line of firefighters once again snapped to attention, resuming their salute. This time, they had thin black bands stretched across their gleaming silver badges.
Bretagne came out first, in a casket covered with a Texas flag, carried grimly by pallbearers from the search-and-rescue unit. Denise and Randy Corliss followed close behind – their final walk with their “once-in-a-lifetime” dog.