The collapse of New York's World Trade Center sent the Animal Planet Rescue vehicle on a detour from its planned affiliate-promotion tour.
Representatives of the American Humane Association — Animal Planet's ongoing partner in the rescue operation — contacted the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York soon after the twin towers collapsed on Sept. 11.
They came to offer assistance in retrieving, caring for and treating pets hurt, lost or just left behind in the rush to evacuate the neighborhoods near the devastation, a Discovery Networks U.S. spokeswoman said.
The ASPCA — given the OK by government agencies in the area — told Animal Planet Rescue to stay on standby in nearby Edison, N.J., as of Thursday, Sept. 13.
The truck was actually closer to the Pentagon crash site that Tuesday, Animal Planet Rescue manager Ben Drotar recalled last Wednesday. Although its mission is better known in the Washington area, he said the need was far greater in Manhattan.
His operation "got good reaction [in New York but] it took a while for people to understand we were serious. We haven't done a lot in the New York area, so we weren't well known."
Fortunately, "The ASPCA and CACC [Center for Animal Care and Control] know us well," he added.
"There were a lot of different burnt-type smells" in the area near the disaster zone, Drotar remembered.
Although "tons of pet food" were added to the donations received by the Salvation Army and others, it soon became clear that relief workers needed plastic kennels and other supplies to retrieve and keep the pets from apartments in the area. Those pets were mainly cats and dogs but also included birds, lizards and other animals.
From Friday, Sept. 14 to Sunday, Sept. 16, the truck drove to PetSmart and other pet-care stores in the area to pick up and deliver the necessary supplies.
His truck also stocked dog and human harnesses that the Federal Emergency Management Agency-certified rescue teams found useful, once Drotar trained them in their use.
The New York Police Department's K-9 unit also asked Drotar and his two staffers to bring them supplies as well. It didn't take long for that unit's officers to see that the spacious vehicle would be an ideal command post, offering their 10 dogs the quiet that the current school site — shared with other rescue operations — did not.
That plan would have brought Animal Planet's truck — then stationed at 6th Street and serving as the ASPCA's communications base — closer to the "frozen zone" by Monday Sept. 17, Drotar said.
But higher authorities then decided to pull all civilian and nonauthorized operations farther away from "Ground Zero" by last Tuesday morning at the latest.
"We pulled out late Monday," Drotar said. But before they left the Big Apple, they had assisted the ASPCA and CACC personnel with more than 600 pets retrieved through Sept. 16.
"Air quality was questionable," Drotar said. "We were placed near the staging area that was purposely upwind of the smoldering, with the wind blowing in the opposite direction."
With Salvation Army tables, a "McDonald's Express" tent with water and food, platoons of National Guardsmen, Verizon Communications workers and construction workers, the area was "organized mayhem, people everywhere," he said.
That was one reason why 15 to 20 people from other animal-rescue units were kept on standby in New Jersey and Boston, he said.
The rationale behind narrowing the staging area was that "they were trying to pull more people out, as they obviously were changing from rescue to recovery," Drotar said glumly.
Since the ASPCA and Animal Planet each had a cameraman on hand to tape their mission, Drotar said it's possible the network might dedicate an episode of Wild Rescues
to the twin towers rescue and also might incorporate some of the footage into public-service announcements.
Drotar said he would like to see one PSA urge people to have their pets wear ID tags to speed retrieval "in case of the unexpected."
Animal Planet's Web site last week featured its own story on the two dozen FEMA search dogs, as well as Reuters stories on padded dog booties donated by a Canadian company and on a guide dog that led a blind man downstairs from a World Trade Center tower's 70th floor.
The current Animal Planet Rescue Expo tour of 40 markets will stay on schedule, Drotar said. The only disruption was postponing the St. Louis visit by about a week, to Sept. 22 and 23.