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Dogs Sniff Out Whale Scat

Once she had identified likely prospects, she trained them to identify the scent of whale scat the same way she would teach a dog to identify any kind of smell—basically, by repeatedly reinforcing them for discerning it. The problem was, Davenport only had only so much scat to work with. Whale scat is oily and smells of rotten fish. “I have two freezers full of [animal] poop,” Davenport says. “Whale is the worse. Give me wolf or bear any day.”

 

Davenport eventually settled on Fargo, a Rottie who had overheated and wearied while tracking grizzly scat, which made him a good candidate for standing still in the chill air of the North Atlantic. Wearing an orange flotation jacket and a harness, Fargo joined Rolland’s summer 2003 research team. Though he surprised everyone by getting seasick,  Rolland was smitten. “He’s the tall, dark and handsome type,” she says. (Rolland, who’s also a veterinarian, gave Fargo Bonine.)

 

Tracking scat on the water puts a lot of pressure on handlers, who can’t just let the dogs lead them to the dung. Rather, they have to read the dogs’ body language. Rolland learned Fargo’s, which includes putting his nose in the air, throwing his ears forward and wagging his little stump of a tail. Since ocean-going scat is on the move, Rolland also had to learn to read the wind and watch the bay’s swirling currents, guessing from the direction Fargo’s nose pointed where the scat might drift. As the boat came close to the sample, Fargo would sit and Rolland would play ball with him while a field assistant netted the sample.

 

With Fargo on board, Rolland’s team found as many as 10 to 12 samples a day, sometimes one every 20 minutes or so. She brought Fargo back for the next three summers until funding for his services ran out. She hopes to have a pooch back on board for the summer of 2010. In the meantime, she is still testing the 300 samples that Fargo’s nose found. “The lowest-tech technique turns out to be the most effective,” says Rolland.

 

On the other side of the continent, Tucker is helping solve another whale mystery. In the late 1990s, one-fifth of the orcas in Puget Sound died. Given that the orca’s primary prey, Chinook salmon, had declined dramatically, the whales may have starved to death. They also may have been poisoned by PCP or struck and killed by boats, or all the above. To tease out the answer, Wasser needed scat, a lot of it.

 

Like Rolland, Wasser began searching for whale feces himself, but found it even slower going. Orca scat is the color of the water and smells mostly like fish. Even when Wasser found it, the soft and slimy stuff would often seep through the collecting net. When Wasser and his assistant were lucky enough actually net some orca waste, the sample was typically small, about the size of the end of a person’s little finger.

 

That changed in the summer of 2007 when Wasser enlisted Tucker, a five-year-old Lab mix. In response to the cue “Find it,” Tucker led Wasser to five times more scat. Moreover, the samples were far bigger, big enough, the scientist says with relish, “to fill a sandwich bag.” As a reward, Wasser and Tucker play a few minutes of tug.

 

Tucker is Wasser’s favorite dog at the Conservation Center. The happy go-lucky mutt has worked in sub-zero temperatures tracking elk and wolf scat, which he found two feet under the snow. Tucker’s not only a hard worker, he hates the water, so there’s no worry about him jumping in—though he hangs off the side of the boat as it nears the orca scat. Wasser rewards the dog with a few minutes of tug.

 

Despite his training, Tucker is only as good as his human team. At first, Wasser underestimated the distance at which Tucker could pick up the scent. Arriving at the empty stretch of water that Tucker had seemed to indicate, Wasser assumed the scat had sunk. In fact, the team hadn’t gone far enough.

 

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