Mancos artist Patsy Davis holds a miniature replica of her bronze sculpture, “Semper Fi.” The sculpture, which Davis donated to the City of Durango and now sits in front of the Police Department, commemorates the search and rescue dogs, and their handlers, who helped at Ground Zero./Photo by Jennaye Derge

Always faithful

Bronze sculpture takes circuitous route from 9/11 to Durango

by Jen Reeder

Each year on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans pause to remember and honor the victims of the tragedy. Here in Durango, there is a permanent tribute to the loss and heroism of that day: “Semper Fi,” a bronze statue in front of the police station that portrays a 9/11 search and rescue dog.

Renowned sculptor Patsy Davis, who lives near Mancos, said she was inspired to create “Semper Fi” after listening to an NPR story about the work of search and rescue (SAR) dogs during the disaster.

Hundreds of dogs and their handlers – most of them private citizens – searched for survivors after the attacks (and later, sadly, victims). A SAR dog found the last living survivor, Genelle Guzman-McMillan, after she’d been trapped in the World Trade Center rubble for 27 hours.

Davis was moved by the story and decided to sculpt a German shepherd at the moment of finding a survivor at Ground Zero.

“I wanted it to be a tribute sculpture – that was important,” Davis said. “I wanted the dog to be caught in the moment of a find, that expression on its face.”

Davis also wanted the dog to be climbing on rubble that wasn’t totally representational – “I didn’t want chunks of bricks” – so as part of her creative process, she built a doorway with girders in her studio and collapsed it. She left a heat lamp on clay in her studio to keep it soft so she could work with it, and when she returned after sunset, her studio was dark – the only light source was from the heat lamp.

“And it had cast shadows of crosses all over the walls,” she said. “So then I felt I wanted to use that but I didn’t want it to be obvious.”

Though the rubble in “Semper Fi” does contain crosses and should cast shadows of crosses at certain times of year over the street, Davis said she wasn’t trying to make a religious statement. Instead, she hoped the cross imagery in her sculpture would be a symbol of the sacrifice of 9/11.

“The idea of crucifixion is ancient – it’s old, old history,” she said. “It’s not a tribute to Christianity – it’s a tribute to the dog and to the find and the sacrifice.”

Davis, who was inspired by a story she heard on NPR, talks about the method behind creating “Semper Fi.” Before she donated the sculpture to the City in 2013, it traveled to 10 museums across the country with an exhibit called “Paws & Reflect: The Art of Canines” and also traveled to New Jersey’s Liberty State Park for the 10th anniversary of 9/11./Photo by Jennaye Derge

Davis worked on the sculpture for two years, and when she completed it, she named it “Semper Fi” because of the Latin translation “Always faithful.” She donated “Semper Fi” to the City of Durango in July 2013 after it traveled to 10 museums across the country with an exhibit called “Paws & Reflect: The Art of Canines.”

“Semper Fi” also traveled to New Jersey’s Liberty State Park for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, when the nonprofit program Finding One Another, which supports search and rescue dogs, hosted a recognition ceremony for 9/11 SAR teams.

Davis, a self-described “recluse” who is obsessed with creating art and tending to the animals on her ranch, didn’t attend the ceremony. But fellow Mancos resident and Finding One Another volunteer Barbara Schwartz did. In fact, Schwartz was instrumental in arranging for “Semper Fi” to be at the event.

Sept. 11, 2001, was highly personal for Schwartz, who was living on the East Coast at the time. She was attending a meeting of the American Kennel Club just outside New York City on the day and “witnessed the whole thing.”

“It was a very powerful day, and powerful memories,” said Schwartz. She and her husband, a veterinarian, worked to get medical equipment for veterinary teams caring for the 9/11 dogs.

Although the couple had been planning a move to Mancos, the “life-changing” event made them decide to move much sooner than planned. And when Schwartz walked into a gallery in her new hometown in Southwest Colorado, her life was altered once again.

By chance, Schwartz stopped into the Goodnight Trail Gallery of Western Art in Mancos, where “Semper Fi” had been on display, prior to going to Durango. “When I walked into the Goodnight Trail and saw ‘Semper Fi,’ I started crying. Because he just really represented what the dogs did in New York.”

Schwartz felt the sculpture belonged on the East Coast and worked to find it a permanent home there. But, she met with opposition from lawmakers who weren’t interested in art from Colorado. But with funding from Mancos residents Bob and Margi Gaddis, she was able to get “Semper Fi” to the Liberty Park ceremony, at which 1,600 people gathered to honor 9/11 SAR dogs and their handlers – many with photos of their deceased dogs – who received a military salute. The Sirius Courage award, named for the only SAR dog killed at Ground Zero, was presented posthumously to two military dog handlers killed in combat in Afghanistan.

Schwartz wept while recalling the ceremony.

“Every search and rescue team had their picture taken with (‘Semper Fi’). Everyone wanted him to stay. He represented to them what they did.”

Schwartz said most canine SAR handlers are private citizens who volunteer to train and certify their pets, then spend their own money to “drop everything” to travel to disasters, whether natural disasters or terrorist attacks. She said the public can get involved by volunteering with or donating to local search and rescue groups, such as La Plata County Search and Rescue or the K-9 Search and Rescue Team in Dolores.

“It’s important that the public know that such people exist, and to thank them and honor them,” Schwartz said.

She hopes to revive efforts to raise money to have a second “Semper Fi” cast made and statue erected on the East Coast, potentially at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Pennsylvania.

Jim Spratlen, chief of the Durango Police Department, said he is honored that Davis chose to donate the original statue to the city, and that it’s fitting it stands in front of the Durango Police Department, at 990 E. Second Ave.

“‘Semper Fi,’ of course, comes from the United States Marine Corps – ‘always faithful’ or ‘always loyal,’ and to me that meant a lot because we’re always faithful, I believe,” Spratlen said.

He said the Durango Police Department has a 5-year-old German shepherd on the force named Uto, who performs search and rescue missions, including for lost children or people with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as evidence and narcotics searches, patrol work, and community outreach in schools and community groups. Uto and his handler, Officer Sam Petitto, have worked on over 800 cases together.

“We’ve captured a lot of bad guys, we’ve found a lot of evidence,” Spratlen said. “We’re very blessed to have the animal, to tell you the honest truth.”

He said “Semper Fi” is an outstanding tribute to the dedication of K-9 dogs and handlers, particularly the teams who worked on Sept. 11.

“A crime scene like 9/11, it’s just unbelievable, and I’m sure they were pushed pretty hard,” Spratlen said. “My hat’s off to them; my heart’s out to them. It’s amazing.”

To purchase replicas of “Semper Fi,” visit Sorrel Sky Gallery, 828 Main Ave., in Durango, or For more information about Finding One Another, visit For more about Patsy Davis, visit