Earth is experiencing a biodiversity crisis. Animal species are disappearing from our planet at up to 10,000 times the “natural” (without human impact) extinction rate. There have been five mass extinction events during Earth’s geological history and, unless we act quickly, scientists believe that there will be a sixth extinction crisis that’s directly tied to human actions, including over-development, encroachment, and contribution to climate change. Human actions have led to the extinction of 500 species during the last 100 years alone; under natural extinction rates, only nine species would have gone extinct during that same time. In biodiverse areas, scientists estimate that tens of thousands of species have yet to be identified, and may well go extinct before we’ve ever known of their existence. It’s a dreary forecast for environmental stewards, but thanks to some unexpected eco-heroes, there’s help – and hope.
Conservation Canines, which is under the umbrella of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, was created in 1997 as the brainchild of director, Dr. Sam Wasser. For two decades, Conservation Canines teams have traveled the globe, visiting dozens of countries, including Cambodia, Mexico, France, Southern Africa, Spain, Brazil, Portugal, and Nepal. Led by eight teams with a total of 21 dedicated dogs, they have traveled to some of the most remote areas in the world, searching the air, land, and sea for signs of endangered species.
Detection dogs like Chester are an alternative means to gather important, verifiable data about endangered and vulnerable animal species – and to help protect these fragile species. Chester was adopted from Seattle Humane a decade ago. Like many of Conservation Canines’ dogs, he’s a senior and, while he’s 13 years old, this eco-hero shows no signs of slowing down. Chester uses his superior sense of smell to detect genetic material, including scat, which conveys a vast amount of genetic, nutritional, toxicological, and physiological information. From an animal’s scat, scientists can detect if the animal was sick or healthy, what they were eating, whether they’re male or female and, if female, whether they’re pregnant. Scat also helps scientists determine species distribution, health status, abundance, and use of resources in relation to their environmental pressures. Dogs like Chester can detect scat samples from multiple species during a single search, traversing large expanses of remote wild lands. And Chester doesn’t have to change an animal’s behavior to determine all of this. Chester – and all of the dogs and humans of Conservation Canines – are the environment’s unsung superheroes.
Program Coordinator Heath Smith, 42, has worked with Conservation Canines for 16 years. With piercing blue eyes, a rugged beard, and a quiet demeanor, it’s easy to picture Heath out in the field. He earned a bachelor’s of science in biology from the University of Tennessee in 1996. Heath was working as a traveling wildlife biologist when he saw a job posting in Jasper, Alberta, Canada for a position with bears. He was hired as an orienteer and dog handler who navigated for a team and later became the organization’s primary dog trainer and handler. He continues to train the dogs and handlers to this day.
“I was working with a dog named Gator,” he recalled, “and we became inseparable. This work changed my life.” As Heath spoke, Chester launched onto the couch beside him, flashing a winning smile and leaving a halo of golden hair on the seat. Chester, all 60 pounds of him, was a flurry of smiles, kisses, and tail wags as he hip-checked his way into position. While Chester often climbs mountains, at that moment he only wanted to wedge himself into the softest crevasse on the couch. Heath smiled at his ebullient longtime partner.
“We thought we’d retire the dogs when they reached age eight or nine,” Heath said, dodging a joyful Chester, “but as you can see from Chester, they just weren’t ready to retire. We now have five dogs who are over the age of 11.”
Being a part of Conservation Canines has also been life-changing for team member Jennifer Hartman, 33, whose two primary canine partners are both seniors: ten-and-a-half year old black Labrador Scooby and 11-year-old blue heeler mix Max.
“I used to survey without the aid of a detection dog,” Jennifer said. “Now, I cannot imagine conducting field work without one. I see the landscape in a completely different light.”
Jennifer and Scooby have been partners since Scooby was four years old. Scooby has been to Africa, Cambodia, Mexico, and Canada doing his part to help endangered species.
“Dogs have a more dynamic view of an ecosystem and through them I learn so much about a species,” Jennifer said, her brown eyes shining. “Being in tune with my canine partner, I am taught more about the species of interest, like where they sleep, eat or make a kill, than I ever would if I went out alone.”
The Conservation Canines teams are proud that their work is noninvasive, but finding new team members can be difficult. “We look for people who don’t have a lot of dog experience,” Heath said, “and we look for dogs who have high ball drive.”
Team member Suzie Marlow, 28, loves her work. “I find an unending source of inspiration with the work we do,” she said, smiling.
All of the Conservation Canines dogs are rescues, but only one in two thousand dogs are suitable for the work. “It’s not necessary to buy them from a breeder for thousands of dollars,” Heath explained. “Rescue dogs are the best. We try to adopt them around one and a half to three years of age. When we visit the shelter, we’ll walk down the aisle with a ball, and wait to see the ones who are ball motivated,” Heath explained. “We’re looking for the dogs who are shaking with anticipation for us to throw the ball.”
Coaxed by another team member, Chester bounced off of the seat. It was clear that Chester loved what he did – including the media meet and greets.
“Training the dogs is the first,” said Jennifer. “They come to us with a wall of unmanaged energy and a sense of displacement. Through patience, time, and a lot of playing, we can find a way through that energetic boundary to discover their true personalities and perceptiveness. Combine that new found intuition with their target and the dogs follow their nose to some incredible sources of data for the species under study. Whether it’s in a tree, under a boulder or buried, that sample can help biologists make better conservation-minded decisions.”
Suzie took Skye, a three-year-old Australian kelpie mix, with her to Nepal and Vietnam. Suzie has been instrumental in introducing many of the program’s new four-legged recruits the ropes and getting them ready to be deployed on projects with other handlers. She has been with the program since 2013, when she participated in their Alberta Oil Sands project surveying for caribou, wolf, moose, and deer in the frozen tundra.
“Once the teams are in the field, they’ll travel 35 to 45 kilometers per day, and the dogs will only stop because they’ve been told to do so,” Heath continued, smiling as Chester bounced up a set of stairs to greet another group of people. “They’re primarily scat detection dogs, but they can also find pellets, bones, toxins, and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs); with smaller, harder to find species, like frogs and salamanders, they actually detect the species themselves. We prefer to remain non-invasive, but sometimes, with smaller species, they have to actually look for the animals.”
While the teams are deployed to areas that have a reputation for being scenic, they’ve have often been ravaged by clear-cutting, mining, and development. The conditions are often brutal and teams have to be tenacious and dedicated. “We work in extremely remote areas,” Heath said. “It can be very hot, or very cold, muddy, or buggy.
“We have two teams in New Mexico right now,” he said, “and they’re camping for five months in the open plain, with 25+ mph winds. When our teams are working, they live in tents; they work for five days per week searching for up to ten or 11 different species,” Heath said. “They’ve been trained to detect 50 to 60 different kinds of wildlife scat. In Washington State, they’re looking for wolves that are moving back into the area, as well as cougar, fisher, and coyotes, among other species.”
Currently, Conservation Canines has teams deployed in Portugal, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas. Jennifer and Suzie were recently deployed to Nepal and Vietnam to search for pangolins. Later in the year, Conservation Canines plans to have new projects on the Salish Sea off of San Juan Island, northeastern Washington, the Sierra Nevadas in California, Oregon, France, and the Adirondack region of New York State.
While the Conservation Canines teams have searched in four feet of snow in Alberta, the deserts of Mexico, and tropical rainforests worldwide, their biggest challenge is not ecological, but financial. “There’s not a lot of money in this field,” Heath said.
“Maintaining a nonprofit is a struggle, especially when you’re working with highly trained people and dogs. We’re working for endangered species.”
To help support them, visit this page. To donate, choose “Conservation Canine Fund” in the appropriate field. 100% of the proceeds goes directly towards helping them maintain the dog program.
Thank you to everyone at Conservation Canines for all that you do. You truly are heroes!