In Thailand recently I visited Vimanmek, one of the old royal palaces, and, in the course of a guided tour, was taken into a room boasting a throne last inhabited in 1909 by King Chulalongkorn. Our group was told to kneel down on the thick pile carpet, and during a lecture on the room’s appointments I grew cramped and gradually extended my legs straight out from the crouch in which they had been constricted. A guard instantly reprimanded me for disrespect to the empty chair before me, and I spent the rest of my tour pondering the reflexes of instilled veneration to authority.
Amid the celebration of the Constitution’s bicentennial we would do well to ponder the implications of the saga outlined below, for it spells out in homely syntax the social and spiritual consequences of the imperial presidency and of the Rambo culture engendered in the Reagan era. What follows is drawn first from two reports in the Topeka Capital-Journal for September 9 and 10 and then from investigations conducted by this column and my colleague JoAnn Wypijewski.
Splendor in the Grass
Shortly after noon on Sunday, September 6, Air Force One was heading toward Forbes Field, the airport servicing Topeka, Kansas. In the plane President Reagan was reviewing his impending allocutions in Topeka on the occasion of Alf Landon’s 100th birthday. On the ground, security officers of the Metropolitan Topeka Airport Authority were, in cooperation with the Secret Service, securing the area and seeking to insure that nothing would discommode the safely and decorum of welcoming ceremonies lor the Commander in Chief.
At approximately 12:15 P.M., as the imaginative eyes of the M.T.A.A. officers anticipated the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Reagan, their physical eyes observed two large dogs—one black, one gray—copulating at the intersection of two taxiways.
A witness then saw two M.T.A.A. security officers approach the dogs. The action was somewhat obscured by the long grass, but in the words of this witness, speaking anonymously to the Topeka Capital-Journal, “I could see the officers from the knees up, I saw the uniformed officer, with the full force of a large man, strike these dogs about five or six times,” The M.T.A.A. officers retreated. At about 2 P.M. the same officers returned. “The next thing I see,” the witness reported, “is a rifle coming out and firing downward at where the animals were. All I heard was one shot.” The dogs were then loaded into plastic bags, thrown onto a flatbed truck and driven to the southern end of the airfield.
Confronted with this account, Marvin Hancock, M.T.A.A. deputy director, stated that the Secret Service had ordered airport security “to get them [the dogsj out of there.” Attempts to separate the dogs with a welding glove had failed, he said: “They were locked and refused to leave. Since we had Air Force One on final [approach], we had to dispose of the animals.” Hancock’s men finished the dogs off with rifle fire, dumped them in a truck and then incinerated the bodies.
The facts established by this column are far more disturbing. We have spoken with the individual who first alerted the press, and we have reviewed the episode with Hancock, the White House, the Secret Service, the Sheriffs Department, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and the Helping Hands Humane Shelter in Topeka.
The incident began at 12:15 or a little before. This was one full hour before Air Force One landed, at 1:17 as scheduled. The dogs were then mating off to the side of Taxiway C. According to an airport worker they were fifty to one hundred feet from the taxiway, in the tall grass not far from the fuel storage area.
While the dogs were mating, the press plane was nearby, on its way to a parking area. The spot where the dogs were, said our source, was no less than 2,000 feet from Runway 31, where the President was scheduled to land. Even if the dogs had continued their relations for the next hour, it would have been a long run for them to reach the President, and would have been impossible for the President and Nancy to have seen them, given the distance and the tall grass. White House press spokesman Charles Bacarisse told us, “Maybe if the dogs were in the line of sight, if they were in camera view, they would have to have been moved.” He was evidently estimating that imagery rather than safety was the primary concern that afternoon at Forbes Field.
The airport worker giving us an account of the action said the M.T.A.A. officers were observed from the knees up. It was therefore slightly difficult for the observers to see the dogs’ expressions, disposition, etc. They could see the arms of the officers being raised and coming down forcefully. They could see that the men were wielding blunt objects of some sort. They thought they were hammers, but they could have been police sticks. Later—our source says at 2, almost forty-five minutes after the President had landed—the observers saw the officers come to the spot where the dogs were and shoot them. They “could see blood and guts flying, and at that point one of them had to look away. “
We have also learned, from the Helping Hands Humane Shelter, that the officers called the tower after the beating, and before the shooting to say that the dogs were foaming at the mouth and probably had rabies. They later backed off this explanation. Hancock, head of security at the airport, told us, “We did not make that charge [re rabies], though it’s a possibility you always have to keep in the back of your mind,” adding, “The animals were foaming at the mouth, but we figured that was from exertion.”
Then and now airport workers and the people of Topeka are indignant about what happened. “They could’ve easily chased the dogs away,” said one citizen. “They could’ve put them in the pump house or taken them to the police area at the airport.” Hancock says there wasn’t time and they didn’t have the key to the pump house, a k a fuel storage area, “These guys,” said one airport worker speaking of the security officers, “are little Rambos; they’re real trigger happy.” lt seems that lots of animals stray across the runway and roam around the vicinity of Forbes Field. Airport police have shot at coyotes in the past, and there have been suggestions that they have poached deer in the area. The dogs themselves were a familiar sight around the airport, as Hancock agreed. They had often strayed into the “airport operations area,” he said, but had always been chased off.
Was the President at Risk?
The question of why the dogs were slaughtered raises the matter of risk to the Commander in Chief. The dogs posed no danger to the President or to anyone else., They were off to the side in the grass. They were mating. They were 2,000 feet from where the President’s plane was due to land in an hour’s lime. They were near a taxiway that the President’s plane would not have used, And, in fact, the danger dogs pose to aircraft is highly debatable. It depends on the size of the dog and on the size of the plane. Air Force One is a 707. According to our informant, “If it had struck the dogs upon entry there would have been minimal damage to the airplane and substantial damage to the dogs. A dog on a 707’s not going to do much damage—except for some blood on the tires.”
Who first urged executive action against the dogs is a matter of inference. The Secret Service denies that the beatings and gangland-style execution of the dogs were at its prompting. Special Agent in Charge Doug Buckholz told us, “The dogs weren’t in any way involved in the President’s visit to Topeka, Kansas. The Secret Service was not involved with the incident with the dogs. Whatever anyone else said, it’s untrue.”
Hancock said he was “not surprised” at the Secret Service’s disclaimer. But he said a Secret Service “freeze” on all unauthorized activity within a security perimeter was in force and he felt that the Secret Service had clearly intended that the airport take action against the canine intruders.
As indicated Forbes Field is no stranger to nature’s diurnal rhythms. About three years ago two forty-pound possums were mating on a runway at night, and a 707 struck them while landing. The airport worker recalled the incident, saying, “The 707 had no damage that I know of; there was nothing left of the possums.” A T.W.A 727 struck a deer on a runway once. There was some damage to the landing gear, and the antlers went through the body of the plane. In neither case were people injured.
“We could not guarantee.” said Hancock. “that the dogs would not break free and run into the runway. All this second-guessing about what should’ve been done seems to show more concern for the dogs’ lives that for human life. We didn’t have time to debate the issue.” He later noted: “Some people who have questioned this action have told me that the President’s life is meaningless to them. But whatever you think of the President as a person, you’re talking about human life here. There were thirty-six people on board, and it could have meant millions of dollars in property damage. We made our decision.” Contrary to all other accounts, Hancock’s maintains that there was no 105-minute gap between beating and shooting, claiming that attempts at separation began at 1 P.M., culminating in the shooting a few minutes later.
Subsequent investigation of the affair has also become a bureaucratic and political football. Undersheriff Dale Collie in Shawnee county said the airport is out of his jurisdiction and perhaps it was up to the Department of Wildlife and Parks, commonly called Fish and Game, to look into it. Meanwhile, said Collie, the airport is pretty much investigating itself. Hancock claimed he went by the book in disposing of the dogs, incinerating the bodies in accord with Fish and Game regulations and notifying the department of his action. Jim Bennett, a regional wildlife supervisor at the department, said that the guidelines invoked by Hancock do not exist, that the department was not notified so far as he could determine and that normal department disposal procedures do not include incineration. Fish and Game buries its bodies, and, in fact, a woman has claimed she saw a burial lake place in the southeast corner of Forbes Field.
The Dogs Are Claimed
Hancock seems to be sleeping easy nights, “If the circumstances were the same, we’ll probably have to do the same thing,” he said. On September 14, Audrey McCaig of the Helping Hands Humane Shelter wrote to the Which House, to a President and First Lady she regards as “animal lovers,” asserting that the people in charge of airport police should be severely reprimanded and those responsible for the killing should be fired. The White House acknowledges having received the letter, which, it says, is being forwarded to the appropriate department.
Hancock stressed that no one had claimed the dogs, implying a dog without an owner is a dog without value. And, indeed, there was a mystery about whose dogs they were until, on September 22, Emily Maack of Route 12, Topeka, came forward. We were unable to contact her directly, but she told a reporter for the Capital-Journal that she lives on an eighty-acre farm bordering the airport and has working stock dogs, two of which had been missing for a few weeks. The gray dog, she said, sounds just like Speck, a 7- or 8-year-old male, and the black one like Lady, an 18-month-old bitch, who was, said Emily Maack, in heat on the fatal day. She has written in protest to President Reagan, enclosing photographs of Speck and Lady.