A Labrador mix dog named Tucker has become a rising star within the world of canine-assisted science. He’s the world’s only working dog, marine biologists say, capable to find and track the scent of orca scat, or feces, in open ocean water – up to a mile away in the tiniest of specks, away from the coast of San Juan Island, Washington. Tucker is an expert in searching for something that the majority of people, perhaps most dogs, would only quickly avoid. He gets to play with an orange ball on a rope as a reward following a successful search on the water with dint of working hard and obsession.
Scat can sink or disperse in half an hour or less, making this uneasy. The whales here are an endangered group that may be one of the most studied animal groups on the planet, overseeing the well-being of whales is vital. Most of the 85 or so orcas, or killer whales, that go to the San Juans, about 2 hours northwest of Seattle, have already been genotyped and monitored for many years, right down to their birth years and number of offspring.
“Sometimes he’d just turn around and sit down and stare at me, waiting for me to figure it out,” said Deborah A. Giles, who’s finishing a Ph.D. on how orcas here are affected by the thousands of whale watchers and scores of commercial whale-watch vessels that cluster around the animals. “He’s very subtle,” said Ms. Giles, sitting behind the wheel of the research vessel Moja as Tucker, an 8-year-old black Labrador mix, paced at the prow on a recent afternoon. And none of this can happen as quickly as it does without having Tucker and his wet, black nose – or even the new tricks that he taught the scientists.
Orca scat doesn’t smell that bad, that’s something to get out of the way. Possibly because the animals eat mostly Chinook salmon – the tastiest kind, many human seafood lovers agree – the scent is a lot more fish than nasty.
The researcher boat itself is, essentially, Tucker’s legs once he has picked the scent, not like narcotics sniffing dog leading its human around with a leash. He must somehow signal exactly where he would like the boat to move; with the feces somewhere out there on the water considering that he can’t actually go where the sample will be found. Like a Delphic oracle who’s every nuanced expression should be interpreted by acolytes – Tucker may lean to one side of the boat, then another, then abruptly sink back onto his green mat with his head between his paws, the scent lost – his nose for scat leads on, and everything is obliged to follow.
“The slightest twitch of his ear is important,” said Elizabeth Seely, a trainer who’s been working with Tucker for 4 years at a charitable group known as the Conservation Canines, which focuses on dog-assisted research for endangered species. She stood at his side on a current scat-search session, signaling to Ms. Giles driving with tiny finger motions – a little towards the right, a little more to the left, circle back – that Tucker was suggesting by his posture and degree of attention. For Tucker, however, it mainly relies on his ball toy, that he plays with in joyful, wild abandon, tossing it to the air and staging crouched bouts of tug of war with Ms. Seely. Every time a fecal sample is located, the researchers take it to him and then replace the ball at the very last minute, strengthening the link in between work and reward.
Furthermore, it appears that each creature is learning new tricks out on these waters. The boats, consequently, are full of people – upward of 500,000 throughout the high season from May to October – who’ve paid to see whales and who oftentimes, boat operators and scientists say, go back home wanting somehow to help the animals. Whale-loving visitors therefore reinforce a local economic engine that depends ever more on having whales to see. Salmon have taken to hiding under commercial whale-watch boats when they’re being hunted by the orcas.
Oddly, the whales have become more synchronized with the rhythms of their human watchers – resting much less during daylight and a lot more during the night than they used to in the 1980s or ’90s. Included in her dissertation at the University of California, Davis, Ms. Giles is analyzing reduced prey supply and increased vessel presence as potential causes.
Sadie, a flat-coated retriever is a second scat dog in training. She was donated to the program by the owner who couldn’t handle her ball fixation. In frustration, the owner put Sadie’s ball over the refrigerator. 8 hours or so later, she returned and found Sadie still sitting there, looking up at the object of her desires. “When the owner told me that story, my immediate response was, ‘We’ll take her,’ ” said Prof. Samuel K. Wasser, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington and the director of the orca scat research project.
The study, funded by Washington Sea Grant of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is bringing up new questions regarding ways to protect the orcas. Professor Wasser revealed that when he began the project 4 years ago, he thought boat activity will be a significant element of whale stress, reflected through stress hormones in their scat. But as it ended up, he explained, that food supply was a bigger factor, with lesser salmon – due to overfishing by humans or habitat degradation or even both – proving it to be a primary stress factor. Knowing to concentrate on fish supply, he said, means knowing where you should focus public policy efforts about the animals’ benefit.
With the scat, biologists know, for instance, which whale pods spend the winter off the coast of Southern California, as their feces can contain higher trace elements of DDT, the pesticide that was banned in 1972. The poison still echoes through the many years in the fish the whales eat prior to returning north. Other orca groups have concentrations of dioxins or PCBs traced to industrial activity around Seattle.
But for all his countless hours on boats, Tucker is not going to get wet. He hates to swim, Ms. Seely said. She is uncertain why. A trauma from puppyhood, she believes. It is something about that he can’t convey.
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Image: Credit: Matthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times