'They Are Here for You': How Therapy Dogs Comforted Survivors of the Astroworld Tragedy
Caution warning: This story contains descriptions of people's experiences at the Astroworld disaster, which some readers may find disturbing.
Linda Porter-Wenzlaff was at a children's bereavement camp Saturday morning when she heard what had happened at rapper Travis Scott's Astroworld Festival the night before in Houston. Eight people, all under the age of 30 and some of them teenagers, had died as the massive concert crowd had moved closer and closer to the stage.
Porter-Wenzlaff, the CARE co-coordinator for Therapy Animals of San Antonio, left the camp around 11 a.m. She didn't stay home for long, packing up and leading her Shetland sheepdog Indigo Moon to the car so they could drive to Houston. They were going to take part in the first-ever deployment of TASA's CARE Team, a rapid-response group of therapy dogs and handlers set on helping disaster survivors cope.
On Sunday, the five-person, four-dog team from TASA arrived at the concert site, where a makeshift memorial stood near the hundreds of people who'd returned to collect items they'd lost at the concert. The dogs were welcomed by many, receiving many hugs and pets from the concertgoers who'd just experienced immense trauma. Unlike people, the dogs weren't going to ask them to describe what happened or ask how they're feeling. They were on the scene only to offer emotional comfort and support.
One couple sat on a curb and petted and hugged Indigo Moon for about five minutes, a long time to only sit and pet a dog.
"The dogs really do make a difference," Porter-Wenzlaff tells Daily Paws. "We're happy we can do it."
What Is the CARE Team?
This wasn't the first time TASA's therapy animals responded to a Texas disaster. They visited with survivors of the Sutherland Springs mass shooting as well as the people who made it out of a burning apartment building a few years ago, Porter-Wenzlaff says. She considered taking a team to El Paso after the mass shooting there two years ago, but the retired registered nurse thought the teams needed more training.
That's how the CARE Team was born. The dog and handler teams underwent FEMA disaster training and learned animal and human first-aid skills. The therapy dogs—who already had worked in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools—were exposed to sirens, rowdy crowds, and loud equipment.
"You don't know what you're going to walk into," Porter-Wenzlaff says.
The 16 members, including 12 person-and-dog teams, completed their training on June 12, meeting national standards for rapid-response, animal-assisted therapy. Four teams were on their way to the Astroworld site in Houston 147 days later.
On Sunday, they found themselves outside the festival site, where people were waiting in line next to the memorial to retrieve the phones, wallets, and purses they'd left behind as they escaped the concert.
On the Ground in Houston
The memorial included photos, notes, candles, and balloons, personalizing the loss of life. At any given point, there usually were between 100 and 150 people in the line, Porter-Wenzlaff says. The dogs—Indigo Moon, golden retriever Indigo, golden retriever Maggie, and beagle mix Bonnie—got to work.
They walked up and down the line. Porter-Wenzlaff says some of the concertgoers aren't dog people, but plenty of others stopped to pet and hug the dogs. It was "just time with a safe, loving dog." Importantly, she and the other handlers didn't ask the survivors about what they had been through.
"They are therapy dogs and they are here for you, and we are just the other end of the leash," she says. "... You're not going to say anything profound that's going to make a difference."
Most of the attendees were somber and quiet, but some of them did talk about what they'd seen or felt, Porter-Wenzlaff says. A young guy talked about hanging onto a railing against immense pressure, keeping himself from getting trampled. Others talked about seeing people on the ground, scared they could fall themselves.
Amid all that sadness and trauma, Porter-Wenzlaff believes the TASA dogs were able to help distract the patrons from the trauma or give them a moment of peace. Some said things like, "Oh, I needed this so much." And she heard more people share their stories after listening to others share theirs.
The sweet dogs were happy to help—and they did help. It's why Porter-Wenzlaff would advocate for more teams like hers across the country. Sadly, there's always going to be a need for them.
"You can't change that disasters are going to happen."