Tuesday, December 1, 2009

C.J. Snake Sniffer

Another in our 'Working Dog Series'

C.J. the wonder dog couldn’t cut it in the harsh world of drug detection, but doesn’t mind using his trained schnozz to sniff out a snake or two for a good cause.

The 6-year-old chocolate Lab has gone green, working with environmentalists to save the Eastern indigo snake.

For the past couple of months, the snake-sniffing dog has worked for Project Orianne at the organization’s Mopani Preserve near this small central Georgia town. This land, with its long leaf pines and sand hills, is Ground Zero in the effort to save the Eastern indigo snake, and the nonprofit Project Orianne is in the forefront of the movement.

The snake, the largest nonvenomous snake in North America, was once plentiful in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, said Project Orianne Executive Director Chris Jenkins, but its population has been decimated for a variety of reasons. It is listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A familiar find

On Tuesday, C.J. worked his last day for the project, sniffing for snakes at Mopani and at The Nature Conservancy in Georgia’s Broxton Rocks Reserve. On Wednesday, he was to head back home to his owners in Washington state, Pack Leader Dog Training.

C.J. checked out a few promising burrows at Broxton, but failed to roust a snake. Within minutes of arriving at Mopani, however, he found a 7-foot male lounging in the sun on the side of a sand hill.

C.J. has been on the job since November, and has aided in locating 10 individual snakes at the 1,000-acre preserve on the banks of the Ocmulgee River.
He’s also been tested by the staff to determine his ability to sniff out the snakes. Bits of shed skin have been hidden, and C.J. has been successful 90 percent of the time in locating the “bait.”

“This is unique, novel science we’re doing with the dog,” Orianne field ecologist Dirk Stevenson said. “It’s been very successful.”

C.J. was trained to find indigo snakes and avoid rattlers, Ravenscroft said. When he gets back to Washington, he’ll be retrained to search for other wildlife. He’s too high-strung for drug work, she said, but loves the out-of-doors.

“He’s found bats and spider monkeys in Nicaragua,” she said.

Now, he can add indigo snakes to his resume.