He has dangled 30m below a helicopter‚ traversed a gold mine and trekked across treacherous mountains – and veteran search-and-rescue dog Kojak would have continued‚ had it not been for a brain tumour.
With 665 search-and-rescue operations‚ undertaken over seven years‚ behind him‚ Kojak will be remembered as one of the best.
Kojak‚ 8‚ was forced to take retirement last week after an x-ray revealed that he had a 3cm brain tumour.
The tenacious German Shepherd‚ which has been involved in search-and-rescue operations across the Eastern Cape and even outside South Africa‚ has rescued five people and recovered 275 bodies during his career.
Kojak’s handler‚ Warrant Officer Ettiene Gerber‚ said news of the tumour had come as a great shock to him‚ his colleagues and his family.
Since last week‚ Kojak has been living with Gerber’s family at their home in Sherwood‚ Port Elizabeth‚ where he is being spoilt with juicy bones‚ dog treats and lots of relaxation.
Kojak‚ donated to the police in 2008‚ has been working with Gerber since 2009.
One of the team’s most daring rescues involved a 2km climb down a mine shaft at the Bulyanhulu Gold Mine‚ situated 55km south of Lake Victoria in Tanzania‚ in 2013.
Kojak’s career included finding missing hikers wandering around mountain ranges‚ locating hard-to-reach aircraft crash sites‚ climbing into gorges and finding missing people who had drowned in rivers or dams.
In some operations‚ Kojak has dangled 30m underneath a helicopter while being airlifted to some of the province’s most dangerous and treacherous mountain ranges.
A visibly upset Gerber said on Thursday that Kojak had been trained to detect bodies under water‚ making him an invaluable asset when searching for missing people or those presumed drowned.
Gerber said they had been sent to Tanzania to assist in finding a missing miner‚ after a plea was made following an unsuccessful two-week search by Tanzanian authorities. “It was a different climate‚ terrain and country. It was also the first time we had been in a mine shaft‚ so it was an experience‚” he said.
“Within a matter of hours‚ Kojak had found the missing miner‚ located about 2km down the mine shaft.”
Other operations included the search for missing school teacher Jayde Panayiotou‚ whose husband‚ Christopher‚ is standing trial for her murder.
Another operation Gerber is proud of was the rescue of a mentally ill man with diabetes who Kojak found‚ barely alive‚ in the bushes in the Kabega Park area.
“This is a prime example of why we do what we do. If Kojak had not found that man‚ he would have been dead in a matter of hours‚” Gerber said.
Kojak was also used to locate two small children – aged three and six – who went missing in a massive orchard in Kirkwood.
“The community had been searching for the children most of the night when we were called in that morning‚” Gerber said.
“Within a matter of hours Kojak located both children‚ both dehydrated and cold‚ but alive.”
Gerber said Kojak’s easy-going‚ gentle nature and determination were what made him a true hero.
“Kojak knows work is work and play is play‚” he said.
“As soon as we arrived at a scene‚ be it a river or a mountain range‚ I could see that he was determined to find what we were looking for.”
Asked why Kojak was such a successful search-and-rescue dog‚ Gerber replied: “He was born to help and save people.
“Without doubt‚ the most rewarding part of the job is bringing closure to families‚ whether it is finding a person alive or dead.
“It is so important for them to have closure and that is what we assist with‚ be it good or bad results.”
Due to the nature of the tumour‚ vets cannot operate.
“We are taking it day by day‚ but for now I can say that he is enjoying retirement‚ living in the lap of luxury‚ and enjoying the rest‚” Gerber said.
“I really don’t even want to think about when we lose him‚ but at this stage vets cannot give a timeline.”
K9 Unit commander Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Marais said they were all saddened by the news.
“Kojak was one of our unit’s top dogs and the bond he and Gerber have is amazing‚” he said. “He will be sorely missed after dedicating his entire life to saving lives and helping others.
“I am just glad that he can serve his remaining time at home with those who love him the most.”