Cranberry canine comforts Maine community after shooting
CRANBERRY TWP — Five days after a mass shooting left 18 dead in Lewiston, Maine, township resident Cece Peterson and her dog, Fergus, were on the ground to assist at local schools.
“We got into Winthrop, Maine, probably at 1 a.m. by the time we checked into the hotel,” she said, “We were at the school at 7:15 a.m. for the teachers’ meeting.”
The Oct. 25 shooting, in which Robert Card opened fire at a bowling alley and bar in Lewiston, left area residents sheltered in their homes for two days as law enforcement conducted a massive search for the shooter.
Card, an Army reservist, died of a self-inflicted gunshot. His body was discovered Oct. 27.
Peterson, a volunteer with HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, said comfort dog teams were deployed to Lewiston and Winthrop school districts in the hours that followed.
“The request for the dogs came in on Friday,” she said. “On Saturday, travel arrangements were made, and I left on Sunday.”
Her black Labrador retriever, Fergus, was part of the first HOPE team in the schools.
“We were there on Monday when the kids went back to school in Winthrop,” Peterson said, “and then the next day when kids went back to school in Lewiston.”
Peterson said Fergus visited elementary, middle and high schools in the districts alongside a team with two other HOPE comfort dogs.
“As the kids came walking into the school — this is their first day back after 18 people in their community were murdered, people they knew — kids were walking in with their heads hanging down,” she said.
The volunteers immediately saw students’ faces “light up,” though, as they noticed the comfort dogs.
“’There’s dogs here! There are dogs at the school!’” she quoted with a laugh. “Their faces, their whole demeanor, changed.”
Peterson said the districts “laid really low,” for the first couple of days students returned to classes.
“There was a lot of free time for the kids while they adjusted, and the kids were really grieving, the teachers were grieving,” she said. “Fergus would sit with anybody who really needed a little TLC.”
As a trained comfort dog, Peterson said Fergus is “pretty intuitive” with emotional needs.
“They sense who needs love,” she said. “And if everyone in the room is pretty chill, he just makes his rounds.”
On the dogs’ very first day at the schools, Peterson said they keyed in on a young gym teacher during a staff meeting.
“All the dogs knew she was in pain, and all the dogs went to visit her and she sat on the floor with them while the teachers had their meeting before classes started,” she said.
Peterson said she discovered that a week before the shooting, the gym teacher had been drilling active shooter responses with her students.
“And then one of her students was lost,” she said. “That was overwhelming.”
After a week with the students, Peterson said she returned home to her own tragedy: the death of her golden retriever, Hamish.
“It was a very emotional week last week for me — losing a dog who was like my constant companion,” she said.
Born in 2015, Hamish became her first certified therapy dog in 2018.
Later diagnosed with leukemia, Hamish stayed with Peterson’s husband, Fred, for treatment while she was in Maine.
“I left on Sunday, and that next day is when he started to decline,” she said. “He refused to eat. He got weak. He got wobbly.”
Peterson returned home Nov. 2 to find Hamish “clearly suffering.” She said they scheduled an in-home euthanasia for him on Nov. 5 — treating him to his favorite foods over the weekend.
“It was such a beautiful weekend. It was so sunny out and gorgeous, and Hamish laid out in the sun all day, which was what he loved to do,” she said. “People came by to pat him and say goodbye, wonderful neighbors. They all came over and some special friends and then Sunday afternoon we let him go.”
In the wake of her time in Maine, she said it was “a lot to process.”
Fergus’ HOPE business card listed his brother Hamish as his “bestie.”
“He caught a lot of tears, and he made a lot of people smile,” Peterson said.
A practicing nurse for 45 years and a former LifeFlight nurse, Peterson said she began working with Hamish as a therapy dog in preparation for her retirement in 2021.
“We would visit hospitals and libraries and the Beaver County Courthouse, where he served as a victim’s advocate,” she said. “A few years after he began working as a therapy dog, we were recruited to apply for HOPE.”
Since then, she said she and her therapy dogs have assisted all over the county and country — including Florida after Hurricane Ian and Buffalo, N.Y., after a mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Markets in 2022.
According to Peterson, a moment from her time in Maine highlighted the value of these community efforts.
“We went to a candlelight memorial for the student from Winthrop High School who was shot at the bowling alley,” she said. “He was there with his dad, who also lost his life alongside several other people.”
Peterson said a local friend — who lived near the bowling alley and had spent the days prior sheltered in her home — attended the vigil.
“At the end of the service, she was crying and she said, ‘I had no idea how much I needed this community connection,’” she said. “So that’s what I do with HOPE: I go places, local or distant, and we just try to bring some comfort to people who are grieving.”
For more information about HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, or to donate, contact Cece Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.