Nepal Rescue Effort Relying Heavily on Search Dogs

Three days after Nepal’s worst earthquake in nearly a century, the best hope of rescuing any survivors could hinge on the abilities of a specially trained force: search dogs.

The United States sent two search-and-rescue teams to the south Asia country, which was struck on April 25 by a 7.8-magnitude quake.

A 57-person task force of California firefighters and six search dogs boarded a C-17 transport plane Monday for the flight to Nepal. A second task force of 56 Virginia firefighters and six search dogs flew Sunday out of the military airbase in Dover, Delaware, and touched down Tuesday in Nepal.

The six California canines, all Labrador Retrievers, were trained at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation in Gilroy, California. Among them is Pearl, a black Lab, who is stationed at the Los Angeles County Fire Department and worked 16 days in Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and Riley, a yellow Lab with the Santa Barbara Fire Department, who helped with rescue efforts after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

All the dogs are certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In addition to the search dogs, task force members use listening devices and search cameras to find people trapped beneath rubble.

Randy Bittinger, a spokesman for the Virginia task force, said the team will rely heavily on their dogs to find victims buried in the rubble in Kathmandu, the nation’s capital.

“Looking at Kathmandu, they have many bricks, not so much reinforced concrete. It's more light entrapment - digging, (and) greater need in my opinion, for canines,” he told Voice of America. “We never want to have to do this, but this is why we train extensively.”

The Virginia team is equipped to spend two weeks in Nepal.

The official death toll has surpassed 5,000 and the nation’s prime minister, Sushil Koirala, said it could climb to 10,000. The number of missing is unknown.

“Our primary, primary, primary goal is to rescue people,” Nepalese Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Jagadish Pokharel told a group of news reporters during a briefing on the aid effort.

Other nations also sent teams with search dogs. A team of 15 handlers and six dogs were brought in Nepal from France and Spain to assist in the rescue operations. China sent a 62-member search-and-rescue team along with six search dogs.

One of the challenges facing the relief effort is getting into the country. Tribhuvan International Airport on the outskirts of Kathmandu airport has only one runway. The tarmac is jammed with cargo planes, according to news reports. Several aircraft carrying supplies have been turned away or diverted to India.