Half Mag / Half Zine

In order to preserve a species threatened by an infectious disease, Saint Louis Zoo scientists have hired an elite team of sleuths—turtle-hunting dogs.

Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park is a 425-acre site christened last year to be used as part of the zoo’s extensive conservation programming. Last week, seven Boykin spaniels began sniffing for three-toed box turtles, a species that has been in decline due to development—but, recently, due to an emerging pathogen called Ranavirus.

Not much is known about the disease. It affects turtles, fish, and amphibians, but is particularly fatal in box turtles—about 80% fatal.

That’s why the zoo called the man known as the “Turtle Whisperer.” John Rucker trained these dogs and says they are the “only dogs anywhere that do this kind of work.”

Like they have done in Iowa and Illinois, the spaniels helped the Missouri research team track and retrieve box turtles with their strong sense of smell, which allows them to find animals in a matter of hours, where it would take researchers weeks.

The soft-mouthed dogs gently pick up the turtles and bring them to John and the researchers, who swab the turtles’ mouths and tag them, to follow them for one year, until they hibernate again.

The dogs’ assistance comes at a crucial time: Saint Louis Zoo scientists discovered a positive Ranavirus case in box turtles in the area, and this research is important to learning more about the virus.

They are tagging them to be proactive, doing infectious disease testing at their lab—and don’t worry, the dogs cannot pick up the disease, or spread it to other turtles.

“Every year we do annual health assessments of our turtles at our field sites. We spread out in a line and just walk the woods, eyes to the ground—and we don’t do it well because they’re good at hiding,” explains Jamie Palmer, of the St. Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine.

“There’s so much error in humans, and we’ve spent hundreds of hours. But dogs, their noses are better than ours…and we’ve seen them find a lot of turtles.”

What better way to combat an invisible threat to the ‘state reptile of Missouri’, but to use a pack of gorgeous and gentle dogs?