On a back road near a highway in eastern Memphis, Tennessee, from somewhere out of the overgrown thickets of wilderness, perhaps north from the dense forests that lined the Mississippi River, or east from the marshland and backwoods along the Wolf River, limped a young Black Labrador. She was only a few years old, but probably wouldn’t live more than a few more days. She was cold and hungry and her side was riddled with buckshot.

But fate and the kindness of a stranger were on her side. The stranger also happened to be veterinarian Lauren Wiltshire, DVM, who had a practice in Memphis. Dr. Wiltshire noticed the Lab running free with no identification and looking injured. The Lab was keeping a good pace despite the injury, and it wasn’t until Dr. Wiltshire scooped her up that she realized the extent of the poor dog’s trauma. She brought the Lab back to her clinic, removed the buckshot and cleaned out the infection, and gave the dog a name. That’s how Lola came to be rescued.

True to her survivor’s nature, Lola recovered quickly from her injuries. It wasn’t long before she was bouncing off the walls. She loved running and swimming in a local pond. She would constantly be pressing Dr. Wiltshire to throw sticks. The vet didn’t quite realize how much Lola obsessed about the stick-chasing game until she threw one a little too far into the pond. Before Lola could make it out to make the retrieval, the stick waterlogged and sank. Lola dove right after the stick, picked it off the bottom of the pond, and returned to shore for another throw. The incident triggered a memory of an article Dr. Wiltshire had read about a little organization looking for rescue dogs with high toy drive. A short time later, I received a call from the good vet.

Lola presented another issue. She was the first dog SDF had located outside of California. How were we supposed to get her here? Any type of shipping would be too dangerous for the dog. My husband, John, was volun-told to lead the mission to bring Lola back.

Once back in California, Lola tested great and seemed ready to start a new career. Soon she was joining the other dogs at Sundowners Kennels to train with Pluis.

THE EASIEST CANDIDATES to come by were gifts from my aging Black Lab, Murphy. By the end of 1997, Murphy had retired from active duty searching, but she was still very capable, and helped coach the new handlers. Any time they needed to see a demonstration done right, I called in Murphy. And she was pregnant. Two months later, she gave us seven wonderful Black Lab pups. As it turned out, two of the pups were prime candidates to become search dogs.

Jefferson, named after the founding father, was a pup whose abilities I had little doubt in from day one. He exuded a confidence that couldn’t be taught. He obviously knew where he’d come from and wasn’t afraid to show it. He’d inherited Murphy’s physical prowess as well, and would no doubt be a handful for his future handler.

Then there was Abby. The only female of the litter, she was named after Abigail Adams. Abby got a full dose of Mother Murphy’s talent when it came to search drive. A child prodigy, she had the same confidence as her brother Jefferson. The difference was that where Jeff channeled the talent into cockiness, Abby channeled it into a melodrama of sorts. Like a starlet who only considered starring roles, potential handlers had to earn her respect before she’d work with them. If they didn’t know exactly what they were doing or exhibit a commanding enough presence, Abby would take on an offended air. I’ve never seen a dog pout like she did. Pluis called her a “sulking bitch,” and she did not mean it in the canine sense.

Abby also had mercurial relationships with other dogs. Her brother Jefferson was fine, and she became fast friends with Duke and Manny. Billy, the older Black Lab, on the other hand, didn’t make the cut. He and Abby would never exactly fight, but rather have constant doggy arguments. Lucky for everyone, Abby joined her buddy Duke as a kennelmate at Sundowners Kennels to see if Pluis could work through Abby’s inner teenager.

DEBRA TOSCH APPROACHED me one day in the office, her usual grin a touch more serious, like she was struggling with something. With mild embarrassment, she laid out her plans. The long hours and nonexistent pay and out of control dogs had, miraculously, only made her love of the foundation and its mission grow. She’d decided to forgo taking her CPA exam and become a handler.

I was a little surprised, to say the least. This was a major life decision. She would be giving up a stable career with a sizeable salary for a difficult and dangerous job that paid pennies. She was not a firefighter and would have to take on numerous courses and special training in order to be admitted onto a FEMA task force. But I also knew Debra. She had a spirit that loomed like a giant beyond her small frame. Anything she set her mind to, she could do. Then she dropped a bomb on me.

“I have a German Shepherd,” she said. “And I’d like to try wilderness search with him.”

Wilderness search? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She wanted to drop into the quagmire of an SAR group outside of the SDF? All the wasted energy, the stonewalling, the passive-aggressive treatment and flak I’d taken from those groups came rushing back to me. At the time, the rest of the search dog community almost automatically shunned the SDF and anyone associated. And now here was my loyal lieutenant, poised to make the same mistakes I had.

I don’t remember exactly what happened next. I might’ve lost my temper a little. I might’ve vented some of my pent-up anger toward the other groups. It was so long ago, I can’t be sure, but I might’ve turned an unhealthy shade of red, shot to my feet, and stormed off screaming, “Fuck those groups!”

I do know that after things had settled down a tad, I agreed to place Debra with an SDF dog. I’d wanted the best people as handlers, and Debra would make a great one. Besides, she promised to keep doing the books for the foundation.

OUR SUCCESS AT finding prime search dog candidates made an old issue resurface: we didn’t have the money to support the new dogs. I had our pilot program firefighters pack up Ana, Dusty, and Harley into a kind of traveling road show to run agility demonstrations during breaks at local horse races. During intermission, they would scramble out onto the track and set up obstacles, then go get the dogs and run them through the course, then take it all back down. They joked they were the Beverly Hillbillies, carrying all their possessions on the back of a trailer moving from show to show. It wasn’t something we could sustain for long.

The numbers were catching up to the foundation. Our fundraising was not expanding. We were surviving month to month. I was still bearing most of the financial brunt and it was not getting any easier. We needed more time to find more donors and raise money. I was never one to lose sleep over money, but looking back, I never really acknowledged to myself how close we were to financial collapse.

Everything came to a head in 1997, as John and I went to sign our tax returns. I knew I had spent a lot of money on building the SDF, but I wasn’t exactly sure to what extent. I would supplement payments in small increments—$50 for dog food here, a $75 adoption fee there, $150 for the initial vet exam, $125 for our office rent, and so on—so I didn’t end up keeping an exact count. I tried to look at it as an investment. We hadn’t started the SDF to make money, and I was certain the foundation would succeed with enough time. To my chagrin, I also knew John wasn’t aware of how much of the SDF’s financial load we’d been shouldering. I wasn’t exactly keeping it a secret from him, but let’s just say everyone would probably be happier if he didn’t see our “charitable contributions” for the year.

John was thorough with finances upfront, so he usually didn’t bother checking the CPA-prepared tax returns before he signed. He hadn’t in the past. I crossed my fingers this tax season would be the same.

When our tax returns came in the mail, I signed the cover without opening the document and slid the papers over to John, hoping he would follow suit. He was about to sign, then paused. My heart skipped a beat as he opened the booklet and began looking at the numbers. His eyes searched the page and then stopped on a number. Midway down the second page, the largest number on the page by far, was our charitable contributions to the SDF: $44,000 (about $69,205 in 2019 dollars).

For a moment, John said nothing, only stared at the number. Then he seemed to collect his thoughts. He pointed to the number and turned the document so I could see. “This must be an error,” he said.

Here we go. I conjured the most delightful smile I could and directed it toward John. “That’s no mistake,” I said.

For a moment, silence reigned as John processed what I was telling him. I saw the gears spinning behind his eyes—I could almost hear them grinding away. He probably knew he couldn’t shut everything down at this point, but he could’ve asked me to withdraw from the foundation. He could’ve refused to support any more financial contributions. I had a mind on me that refused to quit, but anyone who’s been married can attest to the difficulties that arise when his or her better half does not support the other’s actions. I ran the SDF, but I never underestimated the support John provided in the background. He could’ve made things very difficult.

Instead, when he regained his bearings, he spoke without a hint of anger. “Wilma,” he said. “There’s got to be people out there who care as much as you.”

And that was it. He said nothing else on the subject. The man had saint-like emotional intelligence. I mean, how would you react if you’d just found out your spouse had spent almost seventy grand on a charity without your knowledge?

The lesson was not lost on me though. If I wanted the best for my dogs and to push the SDF to be an organization with longevity, I would need to find people willing to give as much as I did. We would need to reach people outside of California. If we could show just how valuable these dogs could be, I knew we would succeed. In the meantime, I focused only on making it through one day at a time.

DURING THE SAME time period covered in those tax returns, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution that would eventually lead to sanctions against the African nation of Sudan for harboring terrorists. Most notably, Osama bin Laden. It was the beginning of the end for the terrorist leader’s safe haven on the African continent and eventually spurred him to move his operations to Afghanistan via Pakistan in May 1996. The move would come to represent the beginning of independent operations by his terrorist group, al Qaeda. Two years later, bin Laden would issue a personal fatwa—a pronouncement according to his interpretation of Islamic Law—claiming that America had declared war against God. In an interview, bin Laden would state his organization’s first priority was to kill Americans and that “If the present injustice continues … it would inevitably move the battle to American soil.”


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