“Woof!” barked 9/11 K9 hero Kaiser Zintsmaster right as Curtis Institute of Music vocalist Andrew Bogard finished singing the first two lines of “America the Beautiful,” briefly interrupting the solemnity of the moment.
Kaiser’s exclamation came during the grand opening of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. The opening took place yesterday morning at Penn’s South Bank on an “uncomfortably beautiful day” — as School of Veterinary Medicine Dean Joan Hendricks remarked in her speech — that marked the 11th anniversary of 9/11.
Kaiser and his handler Tony Zintsmaster were among the many K9 teams who worked relentlessly in the aftermath of 9/11, searching for possible survivors.
Center Director and Associate Professor of Critical Care Cindy Otto was also at Ground Zero soon after 9/11. Until 9/11, many urban search and rescue teams “relied on human physicians to take care of the dogs, which didn’t sit well with me,” Otto said of her motivation to work with the dogs.
Reflecting on her 9/11 experiences during the opening ceremony, Otto said that while it was certainly a difficult time, she felt privileged to be involved.
“Everyone else was there doing a task that was impossible, and I had the opportunity to do a task that I could do,” she said.
After 9/11, Otto began a study to evaluate and follow up on the health of about one third of all 9/11 responding dogs.
“We needed to know if the dogs were going to have any problems,” she said.
And from there, Otto’s involvement with working dogs has continued to expand.
The Working Dog Center has been active as a “cyber center” since 2007, but over the past year began seeking out private donations to open a physical location.
“We had already been doing research, enabling communication between scientists and breeders, providing education for handlers,” Otto said. “This next stage is the implementation.”
After Penn acquired land on the South Bank — which marked the University’s first significant expansion across the Schuylkill River — “this had to happen,” Hendricks said.
Leading up to the center’s opening, Penn Vet students actively worked on recruiting and screening puppies, as well as on calling potential donors.
“The number of groups in the University that have pulled together to get this to happen is unbelievable,” Hendricks added.
The seven puppies that make up the “Class of 2013” — which are all named after 9/11 dogs — were donated to the center by their breeders.
“They had to believe in what we were doing to be willing to make such a valuable donation,” said the center’s training director Annemarie DeAngelo, a former New Jersey troop commander.
The puppies were officially handed over to their foster families and introduced to the center during Tuesday’s ceremony.
Among others, Penn Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli is participating as one of the inaugural volunteer foster parents.
“I was inspired by Cindy’s vision and intrigued by what the program was doing, and the connection to 9/11,” he said.
Otto emphasized that the Penn community will play a large role in running the center. For example, Penn students can now apply to volunteer to interact with the puppies, collect data or work on research projects at the center.
“We want to reach out, we want people to know we’re here,” she said.
After their first year in the training program, the puppies will be sold as unspecialized dogs.
“Somewhere down the line someone will make a decision about which dog will go into which kind of training,” DeAngelo said.
Two of the dogs will go on to serve in Penn’s police force, according to Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush.
Otto added that the data collected at the center will help the country address the need for quality working dogs.
“Our product is the knowledge,” she said. “Our dogs are a by-product of us gaining that knowledge.”
After the ceremony, members of the team that responded to 9/11 with Otto led demonstrations with some of the working dogs.
Hendricks said that “these amazing dogs and their connection with the people who handle them epitomize what veterinary medicine ought to be able to offer to make animals and people healthy together.”
As Otto remarked during the ceremony, “this is a dream come true, but it’s only the beginning.”