Therapy dogs from San Antonio were among the responders who travelled to Texas on Wednesday 25 May 2022, a day after a teenage gunman, identified as Salvador Ramos, opened fire at the Robb Elementary School in the city of Uvalde—killing at least 19 children and two teachers.
The trained dogs, all purebred golden retrievers, are part of the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, a programme launched in August 2008 by Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) to provide comfort and support to people impacted by disasters such as mass shootings. Aged three to nine, the group announced that eight of its canines—named Cubby, Devorah, Miriam, Elijah, Abner, Gabriel, Joy and Triton—were sent to aid the grief-stricken community.
The dogs will be there “to be with the families, survivors, and all of the first responders who serve them,” the post on Facebook read. While Cubby and Devorah travelled from Fort Collins, Miriam was sent from Kingfisher, Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Abner, Elijah, Gabriel, Joy, and Triton hail from Austin, Houston, Plano, and Wichita Falls respectively.
“We are going to attend a mass vigil at the fairgrounds in Uvalde at 7 pm tonight,” K-9 crisis response coordinator Bonnie Fear told Good Morning America (GMA) on 25 May. “We are also aware and have been directed to the civic centre in Uvalde where school staff, teachers, families are gathering, and from there, we hope to connect with first responders, the school staff, families, any churches that request the dogs.”
Fear also highlighted how some of the canines have responded to past school shootings across the US. “Cubby has been to all the mass shootings and crises with me since 2016,” the coordinator said, adding how the cases include the Oxford High School shooting last November in Michigan. “We just see a lot of shock, crying, [people who are] distraught, especially coming in the day after a mass shooting,” Fear continued. “People are not ready to process or listen or answer questions. So we just show up with the dogs.”
“We listen if they talk,” she explained. “We’re silent. We let the dogs connect with people and they can express their feelings at that time and we’re not counsellors, so we are just present, standing with them in their sorrow.”
In the past, LCC’s 130 K-9 comfort dogs have responded to other tragedies including the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Tim Hetzner, the president and CEO of LCC further recalled a comfort dog visit that made a particularly lasting impression on him.
“I remember one situation in Sandy Hook, four days after the shooting,” Hetzner told GMA. “We were at a community centre and this couple was there with their young boy… I had a dog named Howe at that time.”
“Howe looked up at the boy, got up, walked over to the boy, rolled into his legs and the boy came down on top of him. They just laid there. After about ten minutes, the boy lifted up Howe’s ear and told him everything that happened in that classroom. Parents started crying because it was the first time the boy had talked in four days. First time and it was a dog.”
Meanwhile, Insider noted how numerous studies have proved that dogs have a special effect on human emotions, moods and stress levels. “Petting dogs, for example, can help lower people’s heart rates, as well as reduce stress and anxiety,” the outlet added.
In 2019, the therapy dogs who helped students recover from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 students and faculty dead on Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Florida were honoured in the school’s yearbook. In Uvalde, the canines are expected to be deployed till Monday 30 May 2022 and will be given ample breaks to recuperate in between working shifts.
The mass shooting that took place at Robb Elementary School, Uvalde, Texas—which educates an age range of 7 to 10—has reportedly taken the lives of 19 children thus far. The 18-year-old gunman, Salvador Ramos, allegedly carried out the attack with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a handgun and high-capacity magazines, according to investigators. The devastating attack comes just one week after the racist attack in Buffalo, New York and has, once again, called into question the country’s gun laws—or lack thereof, to be more accurate. However, what looms over both incidents for many is the subject of race, ethnicity and immigration.
According to ABC News, teams of Border Patrol agents were among the first responders to the school as well as a ten to 15-member “SWAT-like tactical and counter-terrorism unit.” The gunman was allegedly shot down and killed by a Border Patrol officer part of an “elite…technical group” that entered Robb Elementary school, as reported by The Washington Examiner. Other accounts by outlets including ABC News have suggested the officer was working nearby and rushed into the scene alone, without waiting for backup, shooting Ramos dead.
Reports and rumours of border control attending to the scene of the crime—in what is an otherwise predominantly Latinx populated area—has left many voicing their concern for the wellbeing of the families affected. One Twitter user took to the platform to write, “ICE is on the scene of a shooting that took place in a heavily Hispanic school so undocumented parents have to consider arrest deportation before they go check to see if their kids are alive. What a fucking country.” ICE refers to the US’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“They’re considered ‘first responders’ a whole 100 miles away from the border,” the user added. This sentiment has continued to saturate discussion of the shooting online, with a plethora of TikTok videos, tweets and comments sharing their horror. Author Claire Willet shared, “I thought I was at capacity and then I realised that fucking ICE was at the scene of the shooting and it turns out I can, in fact, get angrier.”
The role of Border Patrol in this case has caused a huge debate across social media and though such fears come from a very real and valid place in US political human rights, such allegations regarding the organisation’s involvement at the scene have not been confirmed. The presence of Border Patrol in Uvalde is allegedly quite common as the city is actually home to a US Customs and Border Protection station, as noted by The Telegraph. According to The Washington Post, their involvement in the case is also not an unusual series of events—due to the location of the city, Border Patrol agents often assist local law enforcement when needed.
Though such rumours surrounding ICE’s specific involvement have not been confirmed, this response from users already shows that the US has cultivated a country and a population haunted by the trauma of weaponised whiteness and racialised violence.