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Photograph by Michael Learmonth

Notes from NYC

The barking, the yapping, the whinning

By Lauren Barack and Michael Learmonth

Editor's Note: Former Metro writers Michael Learmonth and Lauren Barack live seven blocks away from the destroyed World Trade Center. This is the third in a series of weekly dispatches.

THEY MAY SURVIVE allied bombs. But put a hard-line Taliban cleric in the pews of Saint John the Divine Cathedral on Sunday and all bets are off. The scene at the church was enough to cause a fundamentalist aneurysm: gay and lesbian parishioners, female ministers, a Kennedy giving the sermon, music from humpback whales--and a Sufi Muslim reading from the Koran.

Sunday was one of the most popular annual traditions of this church, the world's largest cathedral, located in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan's Upper West Side. It is the Feast of Saint Francis, with a standing-room-only service which includes a Noah's Ark-like procession and the blessing of the animals. In short, it's the day New Yorkers get to bring Fifi, Rufus, Gus and Junior to church.

"If the humans would be quiet," implored Bishop Mark Sisk to begin the service. "We give the others of God's creatures a little more license here."

The procession of animals and their handlers included a beehive under glass, a tarantula in a cage, a boa constrictor, a camel, a cow, several birds of prey, a pellet-spewing goat and a llama. The strange headless-looking chicken caught many off-guard. But the bald eagle lit many smiles on those gathered.

Like everything in New York after Sept. 11, even something as frivolous as the blessing of the animals has taken on a solemn meaning.

"We want to remember the hundreds of search and rescue dogs and their owners that have given so much of themselves to the city for the past few weeks. We thank and honor them from the bottom of our hearts," the bishop said.

Leading the procession were a half-dozen search dogs that have been earning their kibbles searching for survivors at ground zero. For the dogs, the last few weeks have been at least as demoralizing as for their human counterparts. One dog died of smoke inhalation after it charged into the smoldering pile soon after the collapse. Many others have suffered burnt and cut paws, stung eyes and exhaustion. But more distressing than physical ailments for a search dog is having nothing left to find.

"How long will they keep searching?" we asked one handler, as we tousled the large silky ears of his 4-year-old Rottweiler, who was clearly more interested in the bugs on the ground than the people hovering over him trying to sneak in a pat or a kiss.

"As long as they want to keep playing," his handler said. "To them, it's a game."

It's a game that's growing old.

We don't know when ground zero switched officially from a rescue operation to a recovery one. But the enormous cranes, metal cutters and trucks carrying ton after ton of debris from the site are numbing signs that the only people now walking away from where the Towers stood are those there to clean it up. The dogs are still sent in, but with very little left to find, they find the game not as much fun. Handlers spoke of taking their cuddly charges to other sites, and hiding toys they know the dogs can find so the game stays fresh. If finding the "toy" is too hard, and no treats are forthcoming, well, they just get bored. But those gathered around Gus and his handler Bob Wyarnall from Pennsylvania were thankful for every little bit the two had done.

"Thank you for bringing him," one woman said softly as she petted Gus. "It means so much to us."

After a disjointed yet inspiring sermon by environmental lawyer and activist Robert Kennedy Jr., it came time for the animals to parade down the aisle and out the giant bronze cathedral doors. But before the retiring procession, the bishop stood in front of the hundreds gathered and announced that the bombing campaign had started in Afghanistan. He said one more prayer, and then the animals and their handlers made their way out. Half-hearted smiles and tearful eyes greeted them this time.

No, it's not over yet.

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From the October 11-17, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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