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After Fatal Disease Arrives, St. Louis Zoo Calls in the Only Team of Turtle-sniffing Dogs in the World to Help Out


To preserve a species threatened by an infectious disease, scientists at the Saint Louis Zoo have hired an elite team of detectives: turtle hunting dogs.

John Rucker with 7 Boykin spaniels tracking box turtles – Saint Louis Zoo

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 out 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%.

That’s why the zoo named 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.”

As 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, allowing them to find animals in a matter of hours, where researchers are it would take weeks.

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

San Luis Zoo

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

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They’re tagging them to be proactive, doing infectious disease testing in their lab, and don’t worry, dogs can’t catch 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 through the woods, staring at the ground, and we don’t do well because they’re good at hiding, ”explains Jamie Palmer of the St. Louis Zoological Institute.

San Luis Zoo

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

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What better way to combat an invisible threat to the ‘Missouri State Reptile’, than to use a pack of beautiful and gentle dogs?

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