Taiwan's search dogs win hearts in search for quake victims

By AFP   April 8, 2024 | 06:37 pm PT
Taiwan's search dogs win hearts in search for quake victims
Roger, an eight-year-old labrador, plays before heading out for a search and rescue mission in Hualien, Taiwan, on April 6, 2024, three days after the 7.4-magnitude earthquake hit the region. Photo courtesy of Kaohsiung city administration via AFP
A former drug-sniffing dog who lost his job for being too friendly has emerged as the unlikely MVP of the Taiwan rescue teams searching for survivors of the island's strongest earthquake in 25 years.

At least 13 people were killed and more than 1,140 injured by the magnitude-7.4 quake that struck the island on Wednesday, with strict building codes and widespread disaster readiness credited with averting an even bigger catastrophe.

But landslides around epicenter Hualien still blocked tunnels and roads, making the mountainous terrain around the county difficult for rescuers to access survivors and victims.

Footage released by the county fire department on Saturday showed Roger, an eight-year-old labrador, mounting a boulder that had fallen across a hiking trail near Hualien's Taroko park.

"Have you found something? Let's go over there," said a rescuer to Roger, who did not budge.

The mayor of southern Kaohsiung -- which sent a rescue team and dogs including Roger -- said the labrador specializes in "rubble pile search and rescue" and that he is trained to search for survivors.

"Roger must have found some clues, and his confused look made the handler feel something was up, and then they found the victim," said Mayor Chen Chi-mai in a Facebook post titled "The Paw Paw Team's feat."

Handler Lee Hsin-hung said Roger located a victim "just five minutes after setting off", and praised the dog's confidence in an unfamiliar terrain.

Originally trained as a drug-sniffing dog as a pup, Roger was given his walking papers from that role because he was too friendly, which led to his switch to search-and-rescue missions.

"He's very agile," Lee told reporters. "Like this time when he went to Shakadang Trail, it's not a rescue site we can simulate (in training) but he's not scared."

The soon-to-retire dog has won hearts in Taiwan for his boisterous nature, lunging at reporters' microphones during interviews and also destroying a chew toy given to him after his mission.

Another search dog, three-year-old Wilson, a Jack Russell terrier, is getting accolades as well after footage emerged in Taiwanese media of his persistent scramble through immovable boulders.

The quake's aftermath was Wilson's first mission, and he located two victims -- a performance that handler Tseng Ching-lin said he was "surprised" about.

"He's very smart, but he likes to play and he runs to other places," Tseng said, as Wilson started to bite the microphone.

At least six people remain unaccounted for, while the number of people who can't be accessed has steadily shrunk as authorities managed to fix roads and clear tunnels over the weekend.

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