Airports go to the dogs to save lives

It’s not a dog’s life for Griffon and Scott in the traditional sense, but it’s the best job in the world for a working animal, and their shivering excitement on spotting a bird is undeniable proof.

In a scramble of legs and long ears, Griffon, the brown-and-white springer spaniel, hurls himself off the vehicle and into the long grass, chasing birds into an orange Kempton Park sky. It’s 6am on a Wednesday; the wind is whipping off the runway and blowing our hair, and Griffon’s saliva, into our faces.

He’s off to work. His job? To scare birds away from the airstrips at OR Tambo International Airport. His payment? The thrill of the chase.

With his colleagues – six humans, another spaniel and two border collies – he’s employed by the Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) in its “bird strike avoidance programme” and collectively, they’re responsible for making the 15km² area around the airstrips less favourable for birds, and safer for everyone.

High-risk birds, such as hadedas and guinea fowls, could collide with planes or get sucked into their engines – which can damage planes to the tune of millions of rands, causing delays or accidents.

Handler Melissa Hofmann says there are about 10 bird strikes, on average, a month – a much reduced rate since the programme’s introduction. Among the monthly average of 18 000 air movements at the airport this is a paltry number; even then, they mostly involve low-risk birds, such as swallows, which are not easily influenced by working dogs.

At about 7.30am, a Kulula flight takes off metres away, covering our two all-terrain, golf cart-like vehicles with its roar and shadow. Border collie Scott tears across the grass after some hadedas, his black-and-white body low to the ground.

The handlers and their dogs take turns patrolling the grounds every day, every hour, in 12-hour shifts, keeping an eye out for birds foraging too close to the airstrips.

On a signal from the handlers, the dogs launch themselves at the birds; they are trained to stop at the sound of a handler’s high-pitched whistle and return to the vehicle.

The programme was inspired by a similar one in the United States and was introduced in 2002 by Acsa, in consultation with Albert Froneman from the Endangered Wildlife Trust. Traditional methods of managing airport birds, like shooting them on sight or using cars to chase them away, proved costly and ineffective.

Ronel Steenkamp, another handler, said the presence of a potential predator keeps the birds away for longer: “They get used to a car … but they know a predator could sneak up at any time.”

It’s a dream job for a working dog, Hofmann says, but for an animal-and-outdoor-loving human it also ranks pretty high. “When you feel you’re working as a team with your dog, it’s a very rewarding feeling.” And reducing bird strikes is “absolutely vital” to the functioning of an airport, she says.

So, next time you’re looking out the window of your plane at OR Tambo and you see a dog bounding through the grass nearby, be grateful for that furry friend stopping bird strikes – and, possibly, saving your life.

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