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BOOK EXCERPT

Beyond Comprehension: We know that genocide and famine are greater tragedies than a lost dog. At least, we think we do.

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By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

On March 13, 2002, a fire broke out in the engine room of an oil tanker about 800 miles south of Hawaii. The fire moved so fast that the Taiwanese crew did not have time to radio for help. Eleven survivors and the captain's dog, a terrier named Hokget, retreated to the tanker's forecastle with supplies of food and water.

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The Insiko 1907 was supposed to be an Indonesian ship, but its owner, who lived in China, had not registered it. In terms of international law, the Insiko was stateless, a 260-foot microscopic speck on the largest ocean on Earth. Now it was adrift. Drawn by wind and currents, the Insiko got within 220 miles of Hawaii. It was spotted by a cruise ship, which diverted course and rescued the crew. But as the cruise ship pulled away, a few passengers heard the sound of barking.

The captain's dog had been left behind on the tanker.

A passenger who heard the barking dog called the Hawaiian Humane Society in Honolulu. The animal welfare group routinely rescued abandoned animals -- 675 the previous year -- but recovering one on a tanker in the Pacific Ocean was something new. The U.S. Coast Guard said it could not use taxpayer dollars to save the dog. The Insiko's owner wasn't planning to recover the ship. The Humane Society alerted fishing boats about the lost tanker. Media reports began appearing about Hokget.

Something about a lost dog on an abandoned ship in the Pacific gripped people's imaginations. Money poured into the Humane Society to fund a rescue. One check was for $5,000.

Donations eventually arrived from 39 states, the District of Columbia and four foreign countries.

"It was just about a dog," Pamela Burns, president of the Hawaiian Humane Society, told me. "This was an opportunity for people to feel good about rescuing a dog. People poured out their support. A handful of people were incensed. These people said, 'You should be giving money to the homeless.'" But Burns thought the great thing about America was that people were free to give money to whatever cause they cared about, and people cared about Hokget.

The problem with a rescue was that no one knew where the Insiko was. The Coast Guard estimated it could be anywhere in an area measuring 360,000 square miles. The Humane Society paid $48,000 to a private company called American Marine to look for the ship. Two Humane Society officers boarded a salvage tugboat, the American Quest, and set off into the Pacific.

Air, sea and high-tech surveillance equipment were all pressed into service. With each passing day, the calls from around the world intensified: Had Hokget been found?

Under the guise of exercises, the U.S. Navy began quietly hunting for the Insiko -- the tramp tanker was deemed a search target for a maintenance and training mission. By April 7, the search had turned up nothing, but the letters and checks continued to pour in.

"This check is in memory of the little dog lost at sea."

"Thank you for pulling my heartstrings and for reminding me of all the hope there is left in this world."


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