Wednesday, February 9, 2011

John Woestendiek's "Dog, Inc."

Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter John Woestendiek is a 33-year newspaper veteran. Most recently, he worked as the features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes and produces the popular dog website ohmidog! which gets over 1,000 hits a day.

Woestendiek applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Dog, Inc: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man's Best Friend, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Dog, Inc.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend contains a revelation, acknowledges a hero who has stayed in the shadows, and provides an answer to the question that the last survivor of 9/11 has been asking in the nearly ten years since she was pulled from the rubble.

Wait a minute, you’re saying, isn’t this book about cloning dogs? Yes, but it’s also a book about humans, human nature, heroes true and false, legacies, love and loss, cheating death, resurrecting the past, denial, delusion, wishful thinking, dogs of course, and having something to hold onto.

It’s the nuances of those things – more so than the scientific complexities of cloning – that are at the book’s heart. It’s labeled a “science” book. It’s really not that at all.

Page 99 of Dog, Inc. comes seven pages into Chapter 9, which recounts the story of a retired police dog, a German shepherd named Trakr, whose human partner, a police officer at the time in Halifax, Nova Scotia, named James Symington, claims his dog pinpointed the location of Genelle Guzman, the fourth and final survivor to be rescued in the days after the attack on the World Trade Center.

As the chapter points out, the aftermath of 9/11 showcased the best and worst of humanity – from the selfless toil of firefighters and volunteer searchers and rescuers to blatant acts of self promotion and fraud.

On 9/11, Genelle Guzman, a 32-year-old immigrant from Trinidad who worked as a clerk for the Port Authority of New York, was at work on the 64th floor of the North Tower when she felt the impact. She had taken the stairs to the 13th floor when blackness descended and the tower collapsed. When she came to, she was trapped under a mountain of debris.

For 26 hours, lapsing in and out of consciousness, she prayed, asking God for a second chance at life.

When a hand finally reached through the rubble she was buried beneath, she grabbed it and held on tightly. She asked her rescuer his name. “Paul,” he said. Thirty minutes later she was freed and passed on a stretcher down a line of rescuers. In the hospital, and several times since, she’d try to find out who Paul was. Paul – her angel, she called him -- never stepped forward. But others would, including two volunteer firefighters from Massachusetts who would be “reunited” with Guzman by CNN. She didn’t recognize them. And again, she asked about Paul.

Page 99 of Dog, Inc. reveals that the man who found Guzman and held her hand until she was freed was Paul Somin, a lieutenant in the New York Fire Department’s Rescue 2.

True to form, Somin declined to be interviewed for the book. According to his co-workers, who confirmed the story, stepping into the spotlight is not the FDNY way – what they do, they do as a team, and seeking, or even accepting, individual glory is frowned upon.

Not everyone who descended on Ground Zero held that same philosophy, including Scott Shields, who showed up with Bear, an aging golden retriever he claimed was a search and rescue dog and in whose name Shields had established a search and rescue dog foundation. Shields, lacking any credentials, was sent away the first day by police. But that didn’t stop him from promoting his foundation, raising funds and making appearances. In at least one of those, he claimed Bear made more “live finds” at Ground Zero than any other dog. Later he’d be convicted of a different 9/11-related fraud and sent to prison.

New York police officials say dogs made no live finds at Ground Zero, and say there is no official record of Halifax police officer Symington and his dog Trakr registering at the scene. Then again, the scene was chaotic, and lots of volunteers, like Symington, just showed up and went straight to work.

By Symington’s account, he, a friend and Trakr rushed to New York from Nova Scotia and immediately began navigating through the rubble. At one spot, Trakr gave a mild alert, pawing and sniffing atop a pile of debris in a way that indicated to his handler that someone might be buried beneath.

Sources say a second dog was called over and gave a mild alert as well, but amid warnings that the pile they were on was unstable, the dogs and handlers moved on, continuing their search elsewhere.

The next day, Symington says, he was informed by firefighters that a woman had been found alive in that precise spot where Trakr had alerted. The story of Trakr’s involvement in Guzman’s rescue never made it to the big newspapers, but Symington appeared on TV, an act that led to his firing back home. He hadn’t been authorized by his department to go to Ground Zero and his actions there, his supervisors said, showed he was not incapable of working. Symington was out on sick leave from the department at the time.

Later, Symington and Trakr would receive an award for their work at Ground Zero, presented by Jane Goodall. The “Extraordinary Service to Humanity Award,” as it was called, came from The Bear Search and Rescue Dog Foundation, Scott Shields’ dubious organization.

Still, you might be asking, what does this have to do with cloning?

Trakr, as it turned out, would become one of the first cloned dogs to arrive in America.

Based on an essay by Symington, recounting Trakr’s police career, his work at 911 and his Extraordinary Service to Humanity Award, Trakr was chosen as winner of “The Golden Clone Giveaway.”

Bio Arts, a California company that in its first incarnation called itself Genetic Savings & Clone, was behind the contest. In addition to holding an online eBay style auction for five dog clonings, the company decided to offer one free one – to the dog that, based on essays, the judges chose the most “cloneworthy” in America.

Trakr won easily. His cells were sent to South Korea, and in June of 2009, several months after Trakr had died, his clones were delivered, five of them, named Solace, Valor, Prodigy, Trustt and Déjà Vu.
Visit the official Dog, Inc. website, and learn more about the book and author at John Woestendiek's website and blog.

Writers Read: John Woestendiek.

--Marshal Zeringue