They Sniff at Danger
Thursday, August 30, 2007
The day before Ricky Bobby Baby Jesus was scheduled to die by an injection of pentobarbital, along came the cookie lady. She brought dog biscuits to the Howard County Animal Shelter. When she saw the yellow Labrador -- evicted for feistiness from three homes -- leap to catch a ball, she had an idea.
In a New York prison, Mary Jane, a black Labrador raised by a convicted murderer, was balled up in her cell. Bred from guide-dog stock and trained in an inmate program, Mary Jane flunked her test. "She lacks self-confidence," the evaluators noted. The convict sat on the cell floor and rubbed Mary Jane's belly, reading "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" out loud to her.
How Ricky Bobby Baby Jesus and Mary Jane went from being underachieving curs to canines sniffing out terrorists in Rabat, Morocco, is the story of how some Americans -- or at least their dogs -- are finding second chances through the war on al-Qaeda.
In a 16-week program jointly run by the Justice and State departments, the two dogs, along with four other Labradors, transformed themselves from losers to potential lifesavers. Each canine teamed up for training in the Shenandoah Valley with a Moroccan law enforcement official. They would join more than 700 American dogs who have been deployed with foreign counterterrorism forces.
"May Allah the Almighty bless you," said Ricky Bobby's new partner, Lt. Nabil Chakir, 24, of the Moroccan Royal Gendarmerie. He spoke in halting English in a graduation speech last week at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Canine Training Center in Front Royal, Va. Morocco recently raised its terror alert to the highest level, following suicide attacks and warnings from al-Qaeda. Earlier this month, a man tried to blow himself up near a busload of tourists.
Saluting an ATF instructor in front of a giant American flag, Chakir told the crowd: "Long live the collaboration between the United States and Morocco in the common fight against terrorism."
The audience -- federal kennel workers, trainers and volunteer puppy raisers who had driven hours to see their Labs graduate -- watched Chakir pin a gold "ATF Certified" badge to his blue uniform. Chakir patted his dog, whose name, taken from a joke in the movie "Talladega Nights," had been shortened to Ricky Bobby in deference to his adopted Muslim country.
An ATF instructor, Shawn Crawford, explained in an aside: " 'Baby Jesus' wouldn't fly."
The Explosives Detection Canine Handler Course, established in 1991 by ATF with the State Department's Office of Anti-Terrorism Assistance, has grown since Sept. 11, 2001, into the world's largest bomb-dog program, supplying canines for both domestic and overseas law enforcement. The center has trained dogs and foreign handlers for more than 20 countries, including Australia, Italy, Israel, Thailand and Qatar.
Last month in Mexico, an ATF-trained dog uncovered a shipment of guns, says Terry Bohan, the center's director. In Iraq, a dog located a 500-pound bomb. In Egypt, a dog alerted a SWAT team that the door of a terrorist's house was booby-trapped. The next class of handlers will come from Indonesia.
For a country to qualify, it must provide veterinary care, exercise fields and clean facilities. During a visit to Cyprus, American inspectors noticed the black Labradors were wagging white tails; the Cypriots had just painted their kennels.
When the foreign students arrive for training in rural Virginia, Crawford says, their top three questions are: "Where's Wal-Mart? Where's Circuit City? Where's Potomac Mills?" The State Department screens candidates for security risks, he says: "If Uncle Ahmed lives in Syria, they're not going to come."