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Sniffing Out Wildlife Crime

Meet the new class of retrievers that are now trained to help stop black market trade.

Meet Viper, Butter, Locket, and Lancer. These four beautiful retrievers have just completed a thirteen-week intensive certification course at the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Detector Dog Training Center in Newnan, GA. They are the newly trained canines that will be working to stop black market deliveries of rhino horns, snake skins, ivory, sea turtles, sea horses and more.

"The recent rapid growth in the global trade in protected wildlife is pushing some species perilously close to extinction. Elephant and rhino populations in particular are declining at alarming rates," explains Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement Deputy Chief Ed Grace.

"The dogs can move at an incredibly fast pace and cover a large amount of product in a very short time," explains Tom Mackenzie, USFWS spokesperson. "It takes a wildlife inspector hours and hours to go through a shipping crate. They have to open it and go through everything one by one, carefully identifying every item. A dog can do all that with a sniff, and then it's on to the next crate. And for them, it's even fun. They get to hop on conveyer belts, jump over stacks of boxes, and have the ultimate scavenger hunt. In this case, we needed animals that were larger than a beagle because they had to be capable of jumping over boxes on conveyer belts," MacKenzie says.

According to Inspector Denise Larison, Butter, her canine partner, found some contraband in a four-foot tall, three-foot square stack of small boxes in less than five minutes. Larison walked Butter around the stack until the Lab sat down, wearing a very excited expression. Larison says, "Show me," and Butter goes to the guilty box and paws it out of the stack.

The inaugural group of dogs came from a diverse background: a breed rescue organization, a private breeder, a Human Society shelter, and governmental animal control. Officials were looking for dogs with just the right temperament: outgoing, eager, not aggressive, and strongly motivated by food.

The dogs will mainly work out the cities that are considered "wildlife importation and smuggling hubs" including Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, and a UPS facility in Louisville, Kentucky.

"Many of the people who knew one of these dogs at their shelters or were part of helping to rescue them came to their graduation ceremony at the USDA's training facility in Newnan, Georgia," said MacKenzie. "I think it's just incredible to see how far these dogs have come—from being abandoned or abused to serving on the front lines in the war against the illegal wildlife trade."

The training for the dogs could not have come at a more critical time in the struggle to save endangered wildlife. The illegal trafficking of elephant ivory and rhino horns is nearing an all time high, and is the biggest threat to these species' survival.