Sunday, September 9, 2007

A nose for trouble

“The Filipino girls might seem a comely lot. They’ll seem to like you easily, and without discrimination. But don’t get too excited. Remember, any girl who approaches you is either blind or a street-walking transvestite looking for a ‘job’. And since your wife is going to help me cook dinner and you’ll be on your own, don’t get into any trouble you can’t get out of. Ok?” Sisters!! You see, my sister had just moved to Manila and my wife and I had gone visiting. She was barely a week old in the city at the time but she has this irritating habit of talking about everything under the sun as if she’d just written a ‘Best Seller’ on the subject. The girls wanted to play ‘catch up’, while I went exploring, so I left the girls to their giggles and took to the streets, ‘armed’ with ‘words of wisdom’ from a week old expat.

Following a gaggle of Vanessa Mae look-alikes into the crowded precincts of the imaginatively titled Mall of Asia, I was reminded of her advice when I felt a gentle prod where the family jewels rested. Stuck in a serpentine queue that was slithering it’s way into the mall’s portals, I was right behind the girls, followed by two tiny old women with walkers. They looked like they were hundreds of years old. Neither of the two groups looked like transvestites looking for a ‘job’, but there it was, that awkward prod again. I looked down and there was the culprit, mouth agape, lolling tongue and a wagging tail. It was a sniffer dog, “trained to detect bombs”, his handler told me. There were half a dozen of them patrolling the mall and its exit and entry points. Some shoppers seemed scared, some positively disgusted but most seemed happy to see the dogs there. As for me, I was relieved. Relieved to know that the threat from both bombs and transvestites, at least for now, had passed.

The Philippines is battling Moro rebels who aren’t too shy about popping a few well timed RDX cans in crowded places. As a counter measure, security agencies have dispatched bomb detection dog teams to places like malls, busy markets, airports and even hotels. And during a bomb threat, these dogs are your safest bet. Not convinced? Let me tell you a story.

The year: 1985. Dog handler Gary Carlsson and his bomb detection dog, Thor, are usually responsible for screening passengers and luggage at Pearson Airport, Toronto. In the third week of June, Carlsson and Thor are sent to Vancouver with the rest of Canada’s bomb detection k-9 teams for a week long training session. 1985 is a world away from the fear that stalks the planet today. The Canadians are more bothered about communist comrades than jilted jehadis. Therefore, they aren’t too perturbed by the fact that with all their bomb detection dogs in training camp for a week, baggage at various airports might go without the usual sharp nosed security checks. June 22, 1985; Pearson Airport, Toronto, Canada: Air India Flight 182 stands on the Toronto Runway. In its baggage hold lie bags and suitcases which have been given a rudimentary check by an electronic sniffer. The sniffer however cannot compare with a well trained canine nose. But Thor and his handler are miles away and Flight 182 can’t wait. It takes off, touches down at Montreal and then takes off for Heathrow enroute to India. Off the coast of Ireland, undetected explosives in it’s baggage hold, presumably planted by Sikh terrorists, explode. The plane blows up and crashes, killing all passengers on board.

Dogs are perhaps the quickest, the most reliable (with a 90% accuracy rate), and perhaps the cheapest ‘technology’ available for detecting explosives. In a country as vulnerable to ‘terror’ as India, these dogs on patrol could perhaps have prevented the carnage that visited Delhi in 2005, Mumbai in 2006 or Hyderabad in 2007. But while the rest of the world has ‘gone to the dogs’, all you’ll ever see in India is the perfunctory presence of a worthless metal detector and a disinterested security guard. K-9 teams are only brought out in response to threats or for sanitising VIP areas.

So as long as the government is busy barking up the wrong tree, their really isn’t much that man’s best friend can do. Maybe I should make them talk to my sister.

The slip stream

K-9 Brass tacks

Dogs were first used by the police in the 19th century by the Belgians in the city of Ghent. Soon Germany, Switzerland and other European nations followed suit. By the 1970s police forces all over the world had started using dogs for detecting drugs and explosives. Dogs even went to war and the army called them K-9s and since then the name has stuck for most service dogs. Detection dogs stationed at airports and on patrol have saved innumerable lives and millions of dollars. Indian railway stations and airports too could become far safer through the deployment of a larger contingent of sniffer dogs. Trains after all have been some of the most popular terror targets in India.

Besides detecting explosives, dogs have been used to detect narcotics and recently many have been used in Afghanistan to clear its fields of land-mines. These dogs are cheaper and more portable than high –tech robots and far more reliable than even the most sophisticated electronic sniffers in the world. Some of the most popular breeds used for explosive detection are German, Dutch and Belgian Shepherds, Labrador and Golden Retrievers and American Pitbull Terriers.


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