WORCESTER, South Africa — The Jack Russell was a pitiful sight, with his fur covered in dust and his ears encrusted with dirt.Homeless and neglected, the little stray was often seen wandering the streets of Riverview, Worcester in the Western Cape. No one knew anything about him – whether he had an owner, where he’d come from or what his name was. Only one thing was certain: this creature wasn’t well.
He was always shivering, even on the hottest days. The dog caught the eye of Sergeant Zane Swanepoel of the Worcester police’s K9 unit when he visited Riverview to investigate a shooting. He noticed the animal limping along the road and when he returned to the suburb a few days later, he saw it again. When he could find no one to lay claim to him, Zane took him home and named him Snoekie – and just like that the sad stray had a name and a home.
Now eight years later, Snoekie has a career too. The little dog is one of the K9 unit’s most accomplished sniffer dogs, a soldier in the battle against drug traffickers in the Western Cape. As a member of the Breede River K9 unit, Snoekie made headlines in November last year when he “single-pawdly” sniffed out 20 000 Mandrax tablets with a street value of R800 000 concealed behind the panels of a vehicle. He also helped his human colleagues nab the biggest tik shipment yet to hit the Breede Valley: R4,5 million worth of the deadly drugs hidden in a truck.
As a police dog Snoekie doesn’t only work with Zane but also with Warrant Officer Granville Michaels, Sergeant Bertram Jaftha and Constable Neels van Huyssteen – all Worcester police officers. “Snoekie is so good at what he does, the cops sometimes argue about who gets to be on duty with him,” said Zane. The stray dog that became a police hound is indeed an asset to the men and women in blue. And whenever a drug trafficker sees the short-legged little pooch jump from a police car and head their way, they might as well drop everything and confess on the spot.
It’s a hot summer’s day in Worcester, the thermometer soaring to a blistering 37° C (98.60 °F) . Most people have retreated to the relative cool of their homes but at the K9 unit’s kennels on the edge of the town, it’s play time. Snoekie and his pooch pals bark excitedly as Zane (37) arrives with a ball. Snoekie isn’t the only star of the paw patrol and sniffer-dog squad that live in the police kennels when they’re on duty – but after his big recent drug busts, he’s the most famous.
“He’s also in peak condition, leaping high into the air to grab the ball before trotting back to drop it at his human’s feet. Snoekie is a top police dog,” said Zane, even though it wasn’t easy to get him admitted to the K9 unit. But Zane knew there was something special about the little stray from the get-go. He was attentive and intelligent, so Zane tried out some of the training exercises cops use for patrol dogs and Snoekie took to it like a fish to water.
Zane wanted to train Snoekie to be a drug sniffer and asked the K9 unit’s commanding officer if it were possible. Snoekie would have to be donated to the police service, Zane was told, and he’d have to be examined by a vet in Pretoria before undergoing training. The vet discovered Snoekie had a broken paw but otherwise he was in good health. Once his paw had healed, Snoekie got the nod to start his training with Zane at the Roodeplaat police station in Tshwane.
But it wasn’t all a walk in the park. “Snoekie had no problem with the practical parts of training,” Zane recalls. “He could easily sniff out the drugs. But when it came to the obedience section, he was all over the place.” He tried everything but Snoekie refused to listen and, to Zane’s embarrassment, headed off in his own direction. Zane passed the course but Snoekie didn’t, which left him in tears, Zane says. “But then the instructor called me and told me he had good news and bad news. The bad news was that Snoekie and I had to stay in Pretoria a little longer – because they’d selected Snoekie to be trained as a drug-sniffing dog.” This time he cried tears of joy and by 2016 Zane and Snoekie were officially on-the-job partners.
Being a sniffer dog is dangerous business. Apart from the obvious perils that come with the territory for a police dog, Snoekie once ate some Mandrax pills without Zane noticing. The little dog started “shaking his head back and forth” and Zane rushed him to the vet. When they realized the dog had been drugged, Snoekie had to take five days’ leave to “get clean”. His master was beside himself with worry but the tough little dog pulled through and was back to his old self in no time. Zane, a married father of two, says he and Snoekie “are like a married couple” and have their good days and not-so good days together.
“There are times when we butt heads, when Snoekie doesn’t want to work and would rather go for a stroll. But the good days far outweigh the bad days,” he says. Zane doesn’t know much about Snoekie’s life before they met but he estimates he’s about 10 years old, which means he can work for the K9 unit for another year or so. “Then I can buy him back – he’s the state’s property at this point. And he’ll come back home in his old age to enjoy his retirement.” Because as far as Zane’s concerned, this dog deserves the finest woof over his head.
Edited by Judy J. Rotich and Newsdesk Manager
The San Diego Monitor-News has been serving Black San Diego since 1986