“Sit. Speak. Good boy. Now go find a snake that can swallow a 76-pound deer.”
Trainers at Auburn University in Alabama have put Labradors on the scent of Burmese pythons—those Asian snakes that are running amok in the Florida Everglades. In recent years, the Sunshine State has tried to curb the population’s numbers, but pythons are “notoriously hard to find and very secretive,” as one biology professor puts it. That’s where EcoDogs could come in.
Todd Steury, a conservation professor who co-founded the EcoDog program, describes an EcoDog as “a bomb-detection dog that’s trained to find something other than bombs.” This might be scat (read: animal poop full of biological information), destructive fungi or, as of 2010, snakes big enough that they attempt to eat alligators whole. “Pythons don’t belong in South Florida,” Steury says. “And they eat everything. I literally do mean everything. The only inhabitant of Everglades National Park they haven’t found inside a python is a Florida panther.” That may be hyperbole, but the snakes have been linked to declines in native-fauna sightings.
The inevitable question is, of course, are the dogs in danger of being eaten by these voracious creatures? Steury says the trainers take extra steps to minimize that concern and notes that a python big enough to attempt such a meal is rare indeed, despite stories of 16-footers that become ingrained in our pop-culture memories.
The dogs are bred at Auburn University and maintained by the veterinarian school, where they are all given basic obedience and detection training. Before being put on python patrol, a dog is first introduced to the scent, captured by rubbing coffee filters on the snakes. The dogs are taught to associate tracking that scent with a toy, their reward, before finally being trained to “fringe.” When fringing, a technique also used with delicate newborn fawns, the dogs follow a smell toward its source but stop before they get to the source itself.
Without dogs, seekers are left to “put together these teams of humans who stand elbow-to-elbow and move through the environment, kicking up grass and hoping to find pythons,” Steury says. “The thing is, these snakes are so good at hiding, you could be standing on top of one and not even know it. So that’s where these dogs are really useful.” The EcoDogs’ inaugural trip to Florida took place over six months during 2010 and 2011. Whether there will be a second still depends on financing and Florida officials deciding how they want to tackle their python problem.
Meanwhile, let us all bow before the incredible feat of nature that is the canine nose. Venerable sniffer, we salute you.