Ranger, a former Aspen shelter dog, now training to sniff out bombs | AspenTimes.com

Ranger, a former Aspen shelter dog, now training to sniff out bombs

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Andre Salvail The Aspen Times

“Find boom!” Michael Ferrara says Monday afternoon as he issues a command to Ranger, his 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, to search for a small package of gunpowder in a small downtown Aspen park.

The package — which Ferrara says has been rendered harmless because it contains limestone — is a necessary tool for training Ranger whom he adopted from the Aspen Animal Shelter. Ferrara, 64, a former Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy who now works with Mountain Rescue Aspen, is teaching Ranger to be a bomb-sniffing dog.

Ranger circles the park and sniffs behind trees and bushes with Ferrara following closely. The dog finally gets to a small metal cage shielding a utility line. The package lies just inside the cage.

A mere 30 seconds since starting the practice session, Ranger sits on his hind legs. Sitting is the signal to Ferrara that Ranger has located the “bomb.”

“The exercise went better than I expected. I thought he would be distracted by all the dog pee in the park,” Ferrara says.

Ferrara, of Old Snowmass, said in an earlier interview that he’s working with Ranger so that the Roaring Fork Valley will have its first bomb-sniffing canine in the event of an emergency. There are no canines certified to perform such work in western Colorado, he said.

The training is being conducted with the help of an Arvada police officer and a Front Range multi-agency organization specializing in canine explosive detection. Ferrara said he expects Ranger to become certified sometime this fall.

He was not so certain about what will happen after that. Ferrara would prefer to align Ranger with a law enforcement agency in the valley, but if that’s not possible, Ranger might end up as a freelancer.

A dog trained to detect explosives in the valley not only would fill a void but also is extremely necessary, Ferrara said.

Situations involving bombs and bomb threats aren’t foreign to small-town Aspen. It wasn’t too long ago — New Year’s Eve 2008, to be exact — that the downtown area was shut down during what was expected to be a busy night for restaurants, bars and hotels.

The culprit was 72-year-old Jim Blanning, a longtime local who was said to be bitter over Aspen’s transformation into a tony resort community. He planted four gift-wrapped bombs in the city, including two at Aspen banks.

The explosive devices were detonated by bomb squads from outside the city. No one was hurt.

Blanning — who left a note at The Aspen Times that said Aspen would “pay a horrible price in blood” unless his demands were met — was found the next day, dead of an apparent suicide.

Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan said the Sheriff’s Office is exploring whether it would be financially feasible to have a canine as part of its team. The type of emergency-service dog that would be needed is part of the question, he said.

“It’s in a very young stage at this time,” Ryan said of the discussions among the Sheriff’s Office, Mountain Rescue Aspen and the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District. “We are talking to dog-knowledgable people from our local agencies.”

He said he met with Ferrara about the possibility of employing Ranger and passed on the idea.

A bomb-detecting dog, he said, “is one small aspect to a big picture. What do you do if the dog alerts? In this community, we don’t staff a 24/7 bomb squad to go out there and deal with it.”

A bomb squad made up of Grand Junction law enforcement personnel is the closest entity that can rush to Aspen in the event of an emergency situation involving potential explosives, Ryan said.

“So having the dog — but no way to deal with (the situation) when the dog does its job correctly — is sort of putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “Although it would be nice to have those types of resources available to us immediately, this community doesn’t necessarily need to invest in those types of high-dollar things for day-to-day routine activities.”

But Ferrara countered that a single bomb-sniffing dog could be an effective resource for agencies across the valley for special events as well as emergencies. And the canine would help to rule out a suspicious package or device as a potential bomb, saving local agencies the time and expense of having to call in a bomb squad from Grand Junction or Denver.

He provided the following scenario:

“What if it’s Christmas Day and someone calls in a bomb threat to the airport? What are you going to do? What you’re going to do is search the airport. What about clearing all the luggage? You can’t close the airport for eight hours and wait for help. If you knew there was a certified bomb dog 15 minutes away, would you call for him?”

Ferrara said he is taking an “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” attitude with regard to getting Ranger ready for action.

“Call me an optimist, but I’m going to build it,” he said. “Not just for (the valley) but for all the Western Slope.”