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A Dog's Life for Thai Squad

Asia: Bangkok's 56 police canines endure poor living conditions but manage to shine in anti-drug and other dangerous operations.

June 23, 2002|UAMDAO NOIKORN | Associated Press Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — It's a dog's life at the K-9 squad of the Bangkok police.

After a day's work, the 56 police dogs come back home to a badly ventilated compound where visitors are assaulted by an unbearable stench. During the rainy season the compound is ankle deep in water. In summer, the humid air hangs so thick that breathing is an ordeal.

"This is the life of Thailand's truly unsung heroes," said police Lance Cpl. Charoenwai Ornsri, one of the handlers.

She said conditions at the compound don't appear to have changed in the squad's 47-year existence. The only improvement over the last decade has been the replacement of a worn-out wire mesh door, she said.

Unlike in many Western countries, the canine squad in Thailand's capital is considered by the government as an unaffordable luxury for the underfunded police force. The Police Canine Subdivision does not even have its own budget--its expenses are listed under the miscellaneous section of the police budget.

On average, the dog squad gets $100,000 a year, or less than 2% of the Metropolitan Police Bureau's budget of $17 million.

But the 12 Labradors and 44 German shepherds manage to shine in operations that include drug searches, riot control, bomb detection and criminal investigations.

Most of their work is in the fight against drugs, a growing problem that the government has declared public enemy No. 1.

Amphetamines and heroin produced by drug gangs in neighboring Myanmar's border areas are being smuggled into Thailand in increasing amounts, both for local consumption and for shipment to the West and elsewhere.

According to government statistics, more than 80 million amphetamine pills were seized in nearly 8,000 arrests in 2000, compared with 9 million confiscated during 817 arrests four years earlier.

Last year, Bravo, a 9-year-old black Labrador, was voted Bangkok's best canine officer after he located 120,000 amphetamine pills hidden behind a thick wall of marble in a suspect's house.

In all, Bravo has helped police seize more than a million tablets and 44 pounds of heroin during his eight-year career. He will be retired this year.

The handlers say it's stressful on the dogs to handle more than two or three assignments a day, but an increasing workload in and outside Bangkok has them working twice that many stints.

The dogs sometimes spend several hours traveling in pickup trucks from one place to another. Their only comfort are bottles of water and damp cloths on their bodies to beat the heat.

Lt. Col. Nataya Nakornchai, head of the Police Canine Subdivision, estimates that each police checkpoint on drug-trafficking routes needs four or five dogs to make a dent in the smugglers' ring.

When Nataya took charge two years ago, there were only 12 dogs in the squad. She said she had to beg her bosses to get 30 more dogs. Four others were bred at the compound, and 10 more were donated. "We know it's not a good practice to accept puppies of unknown pedigree from the general public, but we have no choice," she said.

The department lacks the money to buy training materials. Nataya said the clothes, backpacks, furniture and general household objects in which drugs are hidden for the dogs to detect were donated by the handlers and other police officers.

For true dog lovers, it is "depressing and heartbreaking" when they see the animals' situation, said Lance Cpl. Samart Wasukree, another dog handler.

"You really have to love animals and be ultra patient. The pay is low. The conditions are harsh. But you get to work with your best friend," he said.

Samart said he takes comfort in knowing that the dogs will live a better life after retirement, when they are auctioned off to civilians.

"Many people are willing to pay as much as 10,000 baht [nearly $230] in the auction even if the dogs are old and not that cute. Isn't that a happy ending?"

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