As the police officer lays his hand on the head of Gossamer, a six year-old golden retriever, Janel Zuranski, DVM, can tell that he is holding back tears. Sniffling, he gently strokes Gossamer’s head. He enjoys a moment of quiet and comfort before resuming work, where he will help his community recover from a devastating disaster.
On June 24, 2021, Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium in the Miami suburb of Surfside, Florida, partially collapsed. A total of 98 people lost their lives, leaving family members and the community in mourning.
In the days and weeks that followed the tragedy, volunteers from countless organizations rushed to provide aid to the victims, their family members, and the first responders who worked around the clock to search for survivors. One of them was Janel Zuranski, DVM, medical director at VCA Boulder Terrace Animal Hospital in Naperville, IL.
Dr. Zuranski and Gossamer volunteer with HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, an organization dedicated to providing comfort and encouragement through animal-assisted support to individuals affected by crises and disasters. They have been a canine-handler team with HOPE since 2019.
Volunteering with HOPE is a continuum of the work that she and Gossamer have been doing since he was very young, according to Dr. Zuranski, who describes her dog as, “Very chill, zen – a rock solid personality.”
The team trains regularly and visits as many different places as they can, exposing Gossamer to a wide variety of environments and people. They frequent hospitals (kids are their favorite patients to visit) and schools, where they work with special needs children.
“If the collective, excited screams of a throng of middle school girls doesn’t faze him, nothing will,” Dr. Zuranski jokes.
Therapy Dogs vs. Crisis Response Dogs
While all of HOPE’s canine-handler teams must have at least one year of pet therapy experience, it is important to note the difference between therapy dogs and certified crisis response dogs.
“All of HOPE’s canine-handler teams have been thoroughly screened, evaluated and put through a mock scenario to observe how they respond to different environments and stressors,” says Nick Meier, HOPE regional co-manager of operations. “In the real-world, the teams are exposed to unfamiliar means of travel, noise, debris and distressed people. Some dogs just can’t handle that level of stress.”
HOPE runs background checks on their handlers annually and ensures they go through FEMA, human first aid, canine first aid and psychological first aid training. Teams are certified, insured, and required to attend multiple in-service trainings annually.
Bringing comfort to Surfside
Gossamer and Dr. Zuranski were among 19 canine teams deployed to Surfside at the request of the American Red Cross. HOPE members spent 16 days at Surfside, offering support to victims’ families, survivors, first responders and staff of responding organizations.
“One of the things that makes HOPE stand alone among animal-assisted crisis response organizations is our professionalism; we never just ‘show up,’” explains Susan Smalling, southeast regional manager for HOPE, who received the request for HOPE volunteers from the Red Cross. “We have to be invited by a partner organization; it’s very important that we are a resource to our partners as opposed to a burden.”
HOPE teams offered support at the Surfside Community Center, town hall, police department, and the temporary memorial wall that was created to honor victims. They even visited the 911 communication center, bringing comfort to mentally exhausted workers there.
“Since stress and compassion fatigue are common among first responders, HOPE exists as much for them as the people directly impacted by a disaster,” notes Susan. “Interacting with certified crisis response dogs is known to help decrease heart rate, lower blood pressure, and allow people to de-stress in a simple, yet effective way.”
Humbling and Life Changing
Dr. Zuranski calls the experience at Surfside “life changing,” both for herself and Gossamer. They had several powerful interactions, including supporting a family that escaped their condominium just one minute before it collapsed. In total, HOPE teams had over 3,800 interactions with people at Surfside.
“An experience like this really makes you rethink life,” says Dr. Zuranski. “It’s humbling to work among the first responders, and you realize that there’s a safety net out there that you don’t really think about.”
Dr. Zuranski volunteers on her days off and covers the majority of her own expenses. HOPE reimburses volunteers for some expenses, but relies on donations to carry out their mission. Dr. Zuranski would love to see involvement in HOPE grow within VCA, and invites anyone interested to visit their website.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to bring calm, joy and a smile to others during a difficult time,” she says. “You get back so much more than you put into it.”