Bark And Rescue
On a sunny Sunday morning at Kalepa Mountain Forest Reserve in Hanamaulu, excited whimpers emanate from a handful of dogs eagerly awaiting instructions from their handlers during a weekly Kauai Search and Rescue K-9 Team training session.
The canines come in different breeds, shapes and shades, and each has its own colorful personality. One thing they have in common, however, besides their medium-sized stature, is that ever since they were puppies they’ve been heroes-in-training, learning how to find missing people in the wilderness.
One of their handlers, Azi Turturici, a volunteer for the team and treasurer of its board of directors, is there with her two Labradors, Jethro and Delta. She looks forward to weekends and loves being able to spend quality time with her furry best buds “and have these guys as my friends, they’re brothers and sisters,” she says, regarding the 10 to 11 regular team members who dedicate their free time to this good cause.
The volunteers and their dogs are certified each year by evaluators from organizations including National Association of Search and Rescue. In other words, the team is trained to work together to help find people who become lost, specifically in remote locales such as Kokee State Park.
The way it works is the dogs are given a command to search while handlers remain close by. The canines pick up scents and clues during their journey. Once the dog makes a find — which can take three minutes, three hours or three days — it lets its handler know by alerting them.
“Just about everybody has a different alert because it depends on what the dog prefers to do,” says Turturici.
Some sit, some jump, while others bark. Then the dogs lead their handlers to the missing person. After a mission is accomplished, they happily wait with tails wagging for their reward, which also varies according to the dog. For Jethro, it happens to be hot dogs.
Peter Kahapea doesn’t have a dog, but he’s an equally integral part of these missions and weekly training sessions. As team board president and one of its founding members, Kahapea is responsible for communication. He uses a radio and global positioning system to keep track of everyone while they’re out in the field. He also serves as an assistant to the dog handlers — carrying water and alerting them to any signals they may not catch — in a duty he refers to as a “ground pounder.”
“The dog handler may miss an ear going up, a tail going up, a dog’s head going, ‘Uh oh, what’s that over there?'” explains Kahapea.
Since it formed about 10 years ago, the team has helped in a few successful search-and-rescue operations, including finding a lost hunter in 2008 who was separated from his friends in Kokee.
“Half the island was out there,” recalls Kahapea.
The victim, Cody Kimura, spent a weekend alone in the middle of the state park’s woods. “We were way inside,” says Kahapea.
The dogs were helpful because they were able to search steep ridges inaccessible to people. “There were tons of people everywhere else, but in those places, there was nobody,” says Turturici.
The group was able to track down Kimura. Cold and dehydrated when found, he made a full recovery.
Another mission, although they did not make the actual discovery, was in 2015 when 72-year-old Pam Dohrman went missing after leaving her Kokee cabin for a walk in the woods. She survived two nights in the wilderness while people including Kahapea searched every nook and cranny for her. “She was smart enough to just sit down,” says Kahapea.
It goes to show just how easy it is to get lost in places with which people might think they’re familiar. One wrong turn can lead someone quite a distance from their original path. Still, it’s reassuring knowing that Kauai Search and Rescue K-9 Team volunteers — those with two legs and four —always are willing and ready to help in a moment’s notice.
And it’s great knowing, not only how eager and happy the people are to offer their assistance, but also the dogs, like Cosmo, who is currently in the process of becoming “air scent” certified and, on this particular day, is pacing the parking lot gearing up for a weekend assignment. You can’t help but feel grateful when you see the entire team’s enthusiasm for learning how to save lives.
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