Last Living 9/11 Ground Zero Search Dog Is Still Helping Save Lives

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Photo by Denise Corliss
Photo by Denise Corliss

This is one truly remarkable hero from one of the worst tragedies in American history. Bretagne is a 15 year old golden retriever who worked at Ground Zero following the September 11th terrorist attacks to help save the lives of those buried in the rubble. She is currently believed to be the last surviving search dog from the search and rescue efforts at Ground Zero.

This week Bretagne has just returned to the site of the former World Trade Center complex  for the first time since 2001. She came with her longtime handler and owner, Denise Corliss of Cypress, Texas.

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“Seeing this kind of took my breath away a bit, similar to how the pile was the first time I saw it. It’s so calm and peaceful now, unlike the chaos of before,” Corliss told TODAY.com.

Andrea Booher / FEMA News Photo
Andrea Booher / FEMA News Photo

Bretagne is now one of eight finalists for the American Humane Association’s annual Hero Dog Awards. Corliss is preparing to travel with Bretagne to Beverly Hills for a stroll down the red carpet on the night of the award ceremony in late September — a prospect that seems surreal to Corliss, considering how her journey with the dog began.

In the late ‘90s, Corliss, an electrical engineer, became fascinated by the work of disaster search dogs. She learned that civilians — volunteers who receive no pay at all and work and travel at their own expense — can undergo rigorous training with their dogs, and possibly support federal emergency response efforts at disaster sites all over the US.

In 1999, Corliss brought home a new born puppy named Bretagne. In 2000 she qualified as official members of Texas Task Force 1. Allowing the pair to help with search and rescue efforts at disaster sites. They could have never imagined that their first deployment would be one of the most important search and rescue efforts in US history.

Bretagne worked tirelessly through nearly two weeks of 12-hour shifts at Ground Zero. On her very first search, she had to balance precariously on a wet metal beam — and she slipped. But she recovered quickly, pulling herself back up onto the beam with her front paws and continuing to sniff intently as if nothing had happened.

Photo by Denise Corliss
Photo by Denise Corliss

One of the Ground Zero veterinarians, Dr. Cindy Otto, once commented that the 300 or so dogs who worked the pile brought much more to the job than their noses. “You’d see firefighters sitting there, unanimated, stone-faced, no emotion, and then they’d see a dog and break out into a smile. Those dogs brought the power of hope. They removed the gloom for just an instant — and that was huge because it was a pretty dismal place to be,” Otto remarked.

In the years that followed 9/11, Bretagne and Corliss deployed together to numerous disaster sites, including Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ivan. Bretagne retired from formal search work at age 9 — but today, even though she’s roughly 93 in human years, she still loves to work.

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I am a recent graduate with a degree in Liberal Arts which has left me living in my Aunt's attic and playing with dogs for a living. I spend my time writing, editing, reading, and kickboxing when I am not being bowled over by dogs, or learning how to put up sheet rock and putty walls for renovating bathrooms. I hope to support myself doing anything and everything while pursuing my interests as a writer and using all of my life's mishaps for the entertainment of others.