Dogs are the unsung heroes of the conservation movement
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Train, aka Mr. T or Big Brown Monster, has made four trips to Misiones, Argentina, a rugged and rainy province with an economy that relies primarily on agriculture and logging, as well as some tourism. He’s not a sightseer — at least not in the usual way. Train detects the scat, or feces, of jaguar, puma, ocelot, oncilla and bush dog. What he finds helps Washington University researchers analyze the paths the animals travel. This allows them to plan habitat corridors that protect the ability of wildlife to travel through territory while limiting their impact on surrounding environments, which include public and private wildlife reserves, privately owned plantations and farms, and roads and pathways.
Conservation dogs like Train hold jobs around the world. Besides sniffing for scat, they seek out turtle nests that need protection, detect pests that attack plants and monitor the presence of invasive fish species in streams and other waterways. The dogs are employed by wildlife researchers; local, state, and national agencies; and international organizations where they help to track poachers by finding the scent of ammunition or contraband such as rhino horn. You may also see them at work in airports, where they hunt for smuggled products or animals such as bear bile and gallbladders, snakes and even baby monkeys.
At Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia, a border collie named Finn and a Malinois/German shepherd cross named Levi search for cheetah scat. What they find is analyzed in CCF’s genetics laboratory.
“We can do DNA and understand more about population structure and find out what the cheetah has eaten, so we have prey analysis that we can use as well,” says Laurie Marker, Ph.D., CCF’s founder and executive director.
Finn has been on the job for approximately eight years and is still active at 10 years old. Levi is his younger understudy, capable of covering more ground. They work off leash in the bush, accompanied by a handler who rewards them with a toss of a ball or toy when they give an alert. They wear tracking collars in case they range out of sight. Despite facing risks such as leopards and baboons, Dr. Marker says they’ve had only one injury. An English springer spaniel named Tiger, now retired, broke a leg from falling in a hole.
The traits that make a good conservation dog are not what most people look for in a companion, so it’s no surprise that many dogs who excel in these careers were pulled from animal shelters, Train among them.
The then-2-year-old dog was selected for his high energy level and ball-driven spirit, says his handler, Karen DeMatteo, a biology research scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. Dogs suited to these types of jobs can’t simply focus on a ball or toy, though. They must also be willing to pay attention to the handler and have the stamina and drive to work for long periods without getting bored.
“They work for play,” Dr. Marker says.
The dogs are capable of learning to identify multiple scents, making them valuable in a number of situations. In addition to identifying cheetah scat, Levi — trained in South Africa — knows rhino horn and ammunition and is being trained on leopard. Together, the scents give him a well-rounded skill set.
In addition to his work in Argentina, where his repertoire odors include tapir, white-lipped peccary, collared peccary and paca, Train has helped with mountain lion surveys for Nebraska Game and Parks and the Missouri Department of Conservation. DeMatteo is planning to expand his repertoire to include spotted skunk to help find this endangered species in Missouri, where she and Train live.
“Even at 10 years old, he shows no sign of wanting to slow down,” she says.