Viper, Butter, Lancer, and Locket aren't your ordinary customs dogs on the lookout for that half sandwich you bought in London or some brick of cocaine. These four beautiful retrievers are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) first-ever wildlife detector dogs, specially trained to sniff out smuggled snake skins, ivory, and other illegal animal products. That's right, man's best friend will now be helping to save rhino and elephant populations, as well as those of other endangered animals around the world.
The detector dogs couldn't have graduated at a more critical time in the struggle to save endangered wildlife. Illegal global trafficking in elephant ivory and rhino horn is nearing an all-time high, and is the single biggest threat to these species' survival. In addition, the ever-tightening federal budget has frozen hiring at USFWS, so adding more human inspectors is not an option.
Fortunately, Viper, Butter, Lancer, and Locket can do in minutes what it would take USFWS officers hours.
"The dogs can move at an incredibly fast pace and cover a large amount of product in a very short time," explains Tom Mackenzie, USFWS spokesperson. "It takes a wildlife inspector hours and hours to go through a shipping crate. They have to open it and go through everything one by one, carefully identifying every item. A dog can do all that with a sniff, and then it's on to the next crate. And for them, it's even fun. They get to hop on conveyer belts, jump over stacks of boxes, and have the ultimate scavenger hunt."
The dogs' first assignments will be at major ports that serve as hubs for the illegal trade—Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, and a UPS facility in Louisville, Kentucky.
"In this case, we needed animals that were larger than a beagle because they had to be capable of jumping over boxes on conveyer belts," MacKenzie says.
Aside from size, the dogs had to meet other requirements. MacKenzie says, "They look for animals with a good food drive, that are good with people, that have high energy, and like to work."
The dogs they brought on had not gone through any government training before and were chosen specifically for this project. One was bought from a breeder, but the others came from the Humane Society, a dog rescue group, and an individual who had to get rid of a pet.
"Many of the people who knew one of these dogs at their shelters or were part of helping to rescue them came to their graduation ceremony at the USDA's training facility in Newnan, Georgia," said MacKenzie. "I think it's just incredible to see how far these dogs have come—from being abandoned or abused to serving on the front lines in the war against the illegal wildlife trade."
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Joanna M. Foster writes about the environment and energy for the New York Times, Popular Science and OnEarth Magazine among others. She has traveled extensively in Africa and India and is passionate about conservation and development issues, especially as they are impacted by climate change. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, but dreams of Kenya.