Honoring Sirius. Seriously.

"Salute to Sirius" by Debbie Stonebraker

“Salute to Sirius” by Debbie Stonebraker (via Facebook)

On Sept. 11, 2001, Lt. David Lim, of the NY/NJ Port Authority Police Department, left the south tower, where he worked checking vehicles for explosives, to help evacuate people from the north tower. He put his K-9 partner Sirius in his kennel, telling the dog he would come back. Lim was one of 16 people to survive the collapse of the north tower; he was unable to return for Sirius, whose body was recovered in January 2002.

Americans love their dogs. In 2012, they spent $20.64 billion on pet food and $13.67 billion on veterinarian bills. Eighty percent of pet owners in this country said they are likely to risk their lives for their pet. So perhaps it is not surprising that almost 106,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org to add Sirius the dog to the 9/11 Memorial.

A memorial service was held for Sirius and a dog run in Battery Park City was dedicated to him. But Sirius’ name is not engraved in the 9/11 Memorial. The petition to add Sirius to the memorial was started on Sept. 11 of this year by Elizabeth Wales, 22, who is a college student in Tennessee. The Sirius petition raises questions—about the ethics around dogs and memorials, and about just where the line should be drawn for memorializing loved ones.

Wales said she first heard about Sirius when a professor mentioned him in class. Wales said her professor had contacted the memorial to ask about the absence of Sirius’ name and was told that memorial was “only for humans.”

Wales said that Sirius was a member of the police force, just like any other officer. “Sirius put his life on the line every single day he went to work. He didn’t ask for it. It was his job,” she said. “But he’s the only officer not recognized in the memorial.” Wales said she hopes that if the petition gets enough signatures, the memorial staff will be compelled to address the issue. Margaret Barng, The Deputy Communications Manager at the 9/11 Memorial, said she was aware of the petition but declined to comment.

While Wales says most of the petition’s feedback has been positive, she said she has also received some harsh criticism, including a quasi death threat. Justin Caes wrote to Wales on Facebook calling the petition stupid. “Even the idea of honoring a dog when people died is offensive and you should be shot for it,” he wrote. “Matter of fact, you will be shot for the idea.”

Wales said she was shaken by the message, but she did not report it. “I understand that there will be people like him with almost any cause,” she said. “I told him that almost 85,000 people disagreed with him and that he’s entitled to his own opinion and moved on.”

Others are more sympathetic to the cause. Stephanie Bell, a PETA Cruelty Casework Director,  said that while this is not a case PETA is pursuing she thinks Sirius has a right to be included. “Animals are just as capable of pain, fear, and suffering as humans,” she said. “And that is often forgotten.”

Karla Maria Rothstein, a Columbia professor and architect who directs GSAPP DeathLab, which focuses on urban spaces of death and memory, said the issue is complicated. The memorial serves many purposes, she said. It is a site where people who have lost a loved one can go to mourn, remember, and reflect. But the memorial is also there for a larger public, many of whom may not have lost someone personally, but feel the tragedy as an American or simply a human. Adding a dog’s name to the memorial raises questions and has implications, Rothstein said.

“If Sirius is publicly memorialized,” she wrote in an email, “we must also be open to equally honoring other loyal animals that may have perished while remaining by a person with a disability.” Rothstein said that, personally, her experience of the memorial would not be diminished by the addition of Sirius’ name.

Some others feel that the lack of Sirius’ name is offensive. Jack Kowall, 66, served in Vietnam as a Scout Dog Handler and is a member of the Vietnam Dog Handler Association. Kowall said that to him, Sirius deserves the same recognition as the dogs that served in Vietnam. “In my mind they are the same,” he said. “And I guarantee you there’s not one handler who wouldn’t go back for his dog if he could.”

In this country, the memorialization of dogs has precedent. In October 2013 the first national monument for war dogs was unveiled. The U.S. Working Dog Teams National Monument is intended to honor every dog that has served since World War II. While this is first national monument, there are many local monuments honoring fallen war dogs across the country.

The relationship between dogs and humans in the context of memorialization is perhaps one of the more moderate ongoing arguments concerning domestic pets. Recently there has even been a push to give pets the legal status of personhood.

While cats and dogs are considered property, there has been a shift in the distinction between property, in animal form, and person. Author David Grimm writes in his book Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, that domestic pets are becoming “family in the eyes of the law.” He says that when a domestic pet is killed, owners can now sue for mental suffering and loss of companionship. Grimm says that these types of lawsuits historically only applied to partners and children.

In a 2013 New York Times opinion piece, titled “Dogs Are People, Too, ” Gregory Berns wrote about his experience studying dogs’ brains through MRI scans. He says that he found that dogs experience emotion much like humans. “The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child,” he wrote. “If we went a step further and granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation.”

Wesley Smith, a lawyer, author, and Senior Fellow at the Center on Human Exceptionalism, wrote an inflammatory response to Bern’s article: “Gregory Berns, a university professor (of course!) argues that dogs’ brains can be seen to love in an MRI. You don’t need an MRI to know that!” Smith wrote. “Because dogs are intelligent and ‘experience positive emotions,’ that does not make them morally equivalent to a human child.”

Another author, Jen Mann, wrote a column on her website, People I Want to Punch in the Throat, expressing her frustration with those who treat animals like humans. “I will never go to a memorial service for a dog,” she wrote. “Losing a dog is nothing like losing a child.”

But for Wales, Sirius is her connection to the 9/11 Memorial. “I would like to have someone that I could go and visit when I see the memorial,” she said. “And Sirius would be that for me.”

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