9/11 widow, veterans find ‘Tower of Hope’ in pets

NEW YORK — After her husband's tragic death in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Cathy Carilli decided to commemorate her spouse by giving back to those who sacrifice so much.

As a way to cope with her grief, she founded The Tower of Hope, devoting her life to soldiers injured in the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Designed to pair invaluable service dogs with veterans and others with similar disabilities, The Tower of Hope allows for unconditional companionship and support.

Cathy tells Zootoo Pet News about her beneficial organization and how by enhancing the lives of others, she has greatly improved her own.

How did the idea for The Tower of Hope come about?

One night after my husband Tom's murder on 9/11, I was having a particularly stressful and emotional night. I was alone in our home, contemplating the meaning of what was left of my life, I was having difficulty breathing and unable to stop crying when suddenly I heard the sound of foot steps, then came the head-butt, followed by a nuzzle. It was our baby girl Tazzman, a beautiful Savannah cat that Tom gave to me in the summer of 2001. Our three other cats were just a few steps behind.

I don't know how long the five of us sat on the kitchen floor that night, but I do know that the pounding in my heart slowed, and the hate harbored in my heart towards the terrorists subsided for the moment. It was then that I realized how powerful a companion my cats were and it was at that point that I committed to building an organization which partnered people and animals in Tom's memory.

How has incorporating animals with your husband's memory impacted your healing process?

After that night, I began the long journey of turning my grief and anger into action. For well over a year each time I thought of Tom, the image that came to mind was a plane slamming into the World Trade Center.

Today, when I think of Tom the image that comes to mind is his happy smiling face eager to share something fun and exciting.

Of the many deserving out there, how do you decide which disabled persons to sponsor?

We have a few priorities which govern our actions. Many of our recipients are veterans, primarily of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We chose to focus on seriously wounded veterans because those wars were the direct result of the 9/11 terror attacks.

When it comes to an individual, we have the difficult task of choosing among many qualified people. It's not easy — we make the decisions on a case by case basis with input from our board members and final decision by a granting committee.

It seems that you overwhelmingly choose veterans, is that by design?

The events on 9/11 inspired men and women in the military to defend our freedom in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. TTOH has the opportunity to defend their right to live an independent life as they return home with injuries from the war. A considerable portion of the net proceeds from our fundraising is allocated to supporting these well deserving heroes.

How long does it take to train these service dogs?

It takes approximately 18 months to train a service dog; they are given to families who raise them and give them basic dog training, and lots of love. At a young age, they enter a more rigorous program where they are taught by professional trainers how to do the tasks that a recipient would need.

When the needs of a specific recipient are identified, the dog is further trained to meet those needs. The dog is then introduced to the recipient, and together they go through a two-week process of training to get to know each other.

When they are finished training, there is a graduation ceremony, and the two go off to lead their lives. The teams are periodically monitored to ensure they are functioning well together, and occasionally retraining or additional training may be necessary to meet developing needs

How many dogs has Tower of Hope trained and paired with a disabled person?

13. Their stories are detailed on our Web site, www.TheTowerOfHope.org

How many applications or queries do you receive in a month or year?

Varies. But we receive far more requests than we have funds for. That's why it's so important for us to continue to raise money — we would like never to turn down a valid request for a service dog for anyone.

Which training facilities do you frequently work with?

We have a rigorous process of approving facilities as for who we work with it truly depends on the special needs of each recipient and how they can best be met.

Are volunteers welcome at either these training facilities or the Tower of Hope itself?

The Tower of Hope is beginning to build a volunteer corps to help us with our work. We can also refer people to our training facilities if they wish to work directly with the dogs and recipients.

We welcome volunteers to help us manage our events; get the word out about our work and to raise funds. I can't expressly speak for all facilities we work with but most welcome volunteers.

Do you have any pets now?

Yes, I still have four cats and take in a service dog in training when my schedule permits.

When in your life did you know you were/are an animal person?

From the second I became aware of them. As a child we always had pets in the home but what sticks out in my mind the most is being 5-years-old and suffering from my second broken leg in a year which caused me to be bed and house bound. My cat, Midnight, became my constant companion and only friend, 5-year-olds don't find sitting bedside with a friend to be of interest.

Dr. Doolittle, Born Free, Charlottes Web and All Creatures Great and Small were some of my favorite books.

How did that realization change your life?

I realized that animals can be great companions. And that became true once again after 9/11. Were it not for the comfort of my animals, I would have had a much more difficult time.

What is one thing people can do to improve the lives of animals?

Perhaps people who have pets should always remember that animals require attention, they need attention. And they are living creatures that need to be nurtured and loved. Most people do that, but some may not get that. A well-trained, loved animal is a happy animal.

For the animals in your life what would they say about your presence in their lives?

I hope they would say that I have shown them unconditional love and understanding bringing great joy to their lives.

But what may better reflect my interaction with my pets is the words of a friend: “When I die I want to come back as one of Cathy's cats.”

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