Maybe you’ve seen him before. He was a viral online sensation, when a (still unknown) photographer snapped a short video of him, standing on a snow-dusted runway, wearing his ultra-cool UV snow goggles as a helicopter takes off in the near background. He’s the picture of dignity and diligence. You see adventure and bravery in that face — you almost see Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
Piper, however, is a dog, and one with a job as important as just about any at an airport. He’s tasked with chasing any would-be pestiferous obstacles from the runways at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Mich. Piper is the airport’s official wildlife control K-9 (and unofficial mascot) — one of only a handful in the United States.
A 9-year-old border collie, Piper has been in charge of clearing the runways at Cherry Capital since August, 2014, when his handler, Brian Edwards, the airport’s operations supervisor, decided he could make good use of his canine companion on the job. “I’d read about canine wildlife control and thought that’s something [Piper] can do, and it’s something he turned out to be great at,” Edwards says. “Piper works exclusively with me, in part because I carry his insurance, but we also make a good team.”
Edwards read up on dog training and quickly dove into training Piper and teaching him the tricks of the trade. Before long, Edwards had turned a loyal pet into an effective partner. “And he’s always ready to work,” Edwards says. “He’s pawing at the door to the truck, ready to go as soon as we’re out on the runway.”
OWLS, FOXES, DEER. During his four weekly 10-hour shifts, Piper chases away whatever troublemaker finds its way into the path of incoming planes. “Wildlife is unpredictable,” Edwards says. “We get all kinds of birds depending on the time of year. They tend to congregate on runways at many airports, but here in the winter snowy owls are the big problem. They tend to stick around no matter how many times Piper chases them away.” Cue Piper, running down the airstrip with the conviction of a decorated soldier, chasing away the danger to incoming aircraft. Also on Piper’s hit-list: foxes, deer and plenty of waterfowl. “But not every day is a busy day for Piper, but he’s ready when you are,” Edwards says. “And when the warmer weather comes, the night shift starts to heat up with activity,” Edwards says. “The summer usually brings ducks, geese and gulls.”
But Piper makes sure none of them stand a chance, often sending critters scattering the moment they see Edwards’ vehicle heading out toward the runway. They know what it means, who lurks inside, and that they’d better get out of Dodge before his paws hit the pavement.
However, not all visitors to Cherry Capital Airport are as clued in as the vermin on the runway. Not every pilot in every plane that touches down there knows to expect Piper on the runway. “He’s been mistaken [by pilots] for a seeing-eye dog, a bear cub and a coyote, because not everyone knows him,” Edwards says. Though one imagines that once you get close enough to see the goggles and safety vest, you realize you’re not dealing with a typical animal.
When asked about the goggles Edwards says he likes to tell people Piper wears them because “rule number one is look cool.” But the reality is, the furry-faced laborer wears them for the same reason a person would — UV protection and to keep debris kicked up by landing copters and planes from blinding him while he’s working. In fact, Edwards says in many ways Piper is treated like a human by other airport employees who think of him as “one of the guys.”
But Edwards says he’s never considered bringing Piper aboard at Cherry Capital as especially heroic, but in many ways, self-serving for the joy it brings him. He also seems comfortable with the amount of press Piper gets. (Piper’s been featured on the Weather Channel and Inside Access.)
“I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything more rewarding in my life than making Piper a wildlife patrol K-9,” Edwards says. “And all I really wanted to do…I just wanted to bring my dog to work with me.”
The author is an Ohio-based freelance writer.