A Mutt Above

Overheard in a local schoolyard: "I'll trade you a Kirby Puckett rookie card for a Kirby the Cocaine Canine"

He was a down-on-his-luck youngster facing a bleak future when the scouts found him in eastern Iowa, running with the wrong crowd. Beneath his rough exterior, they detected a courage and dignity that couldn't be taught, the instinct and poise of a born champion. So they decided to give him a shot at the big time. They sequestered him in a training camp among the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia and put him through the tests. Within four months, trainers had honed his raw talents and he was ready for action. But this player wasn't going to suffer through any bush leagues; he was going straight to the majors.

So it was that Iowa, the drug-detecting wonder dog, came to Miami to work with the U.S. Customs Service, eventually becoming the most productive sniffer of his generation, his renown spreading from the docks of New York to the Mexican border. But only now, as Iowa enters the twilight of this seven-year career, is the nine-year-old Labrador retriever mixed breed truly receiving the accolades he deserves.

Like all great champions, Iowa finally has his own trading card. He's among 24 top-flight narcotics-sniffing pooches selected to represent the 443-dog U.S. Customs Service canine enforcement program on a set of all-star cards, distributed by Nabisco. Each dog is pictured on his own card, the back of which lists vital statistics: ID tag, breed, age, weight, city of residence, value of total career narcotics and counterfeit money seizures, and "most notable achievements."

A whopping five of the two dozen all-stars hail from the Customs kennels of Miami, making the local contingent the largest from any one city. In addition to Iowa, Miami's golden-nose talent includes Marauder, a ten-year-old Lab; Kirby, a six-year-old retriever mix; I, a recently retired Lab; and Corky, the service's celebrated cocker spaniel who retired this year.

Total seizure value, measured in dollars, was the single criterion for selection in the Top 24, which means older dogs are more likely to make the grade. (If a dog discovers a brick of hashish smuggled in a plane, the value of the hash plus the value of the seized plane are added to his record.) According to the cards, which were printed in April with already outdated information, a golden retriever from Laredo, Texas, named Cody tops the list, with a total haul of $247,000,000; the diminutive Corky trails the elite pack with $18,354,000.

In 1990, after a dog handler in the Customs Service's southwest region suggested the trading cards, the regional office produced a set of 81 cards depicting dogs from that area, which were distributed as educational tools during school demonstrations and civic appearances. The following year, the national office developed another set of 81 cards depicting the top sniffers from across the nation.

The cards became so popular that this year the Customs Service solicited sponsors for a third set, says spokeswoman Janice Mosher. Only Nabisco responded, and this past spring the company printed 25 million cards to be distributed in packs of two, buried in Milk Bone boxes. The company donated another 2.5 million cards to Customs for its educational program. "We want to make sure that they're used for the anti-drug message. There's the [commercial] trading card aspect, and we're trying to keep them out of that market," Mosher says, referring to the Eighties boom in sports trading cards as popular and potentially lucrative investments. "We've made it very clear that the dog cards aren't a financial boon, and in fact, we have them under lock and key to avoid abuses."

Despite Mosher's concerns, several Miami trading-card dealers insist the cards have not attained any significant degree of collectibility. "A lot of cards that are put out by companies are just like novelty items," sniffs Rudy Tigani of Homerun Sports Cards & Comics on Bird Road. "They never turn into anything collectible." Tigani ranks the value of the Customs cards somewhere below those depicting pro wrestlers and the stars of Beverly Hills 90210. (The dog cards have apparently begun to acquire a degree of trading status among children, however, according to several Dade elementary school students, who couldn't care less if a 1992 Kirby the Cocaine Canine ever attains the rarefied heights of a Mickey Mantle rookie card.)

Regardless of their investment potential, the cards have stoked interregional competition between dog handlers. "We get a lot of harassment from our counterparts," explains John Makolin, coordinator of Miami's canine enforcement section. "They say, `Anyone can find dope in Miami. It just falls out of the sky.' I wish it was that easy." While admitting that South Florida is something more than a drug-trafficking backwater, Makolin attributes his team's success to unusual unity between area Customs sections, and not the abundance of narcotics. Miami's canine enforcement section boasts 24 dogs that nose around the seaports and airports of Miami, Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. Customs officials expect the number of dogs to exceed 30 by next year, making it the second-largest airport-seaport canine force in the U.S. behind New York.

Although several of Miami's premier performers have either retired or are approaching their golden years, Makolin says local canine primacy isn't threatened. Butch, a mixed breed, is one up-and-coming young star. "He's the true picture of a junkyard dog," Makolin says with reverence. "A little gruff, in his own little world. He hasn't done anything super-significant, but he's out there, a regular producer, someone who's dependable. Maybe he hasn't got that perfect pitch yet, but he gets the hits; he scores."

Using a sense of smell 600 times greater than a human's, the Miami dogs have scored some remarkable victories over drug smugglers. In one spectacular seizure last year, which isn't documented on Nabisco's cards, Iowa alerted his handler to a shipping container passing through the Port of Miami. Customs officials discovered about 41,000 pounds of cocaine concealed in that container and fifteen other sister containers. Iowa was credited with the entire haul and now boasts $2,314,090,865 in total career seizures, a national high. Not bad for a mongrel who, like many other Customs dogs, nearly ended up on the wrong end of a syringe at a humane society.

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