|Auburn’s EcoDogs on the Trail of Invasive Everglades Pythons|
Innovative University Program Attracts National Media
Jake’s the name and he’s not afraid of man, beast or 14-foot-long Burmese pythons.
A black Labrador Retriever who once spent time in the Florida Everglades looking for the scary snakes as part of Auburn University’s Detection Dogs for Ecological Research or "EcoDogs" program, Jake is basically retired from that way of life.
So is Ivy, his Lab buddy, who accompanied him to Florida to prove a point – some answers to ecological problems can be found by four-legged "detectives."
That’s what Jake and Ivy were doing during an experiment showing they could literally sniff out clues to the whereabouts of pythons waiting quietly for an unfortunate rabbit, rat or raccoon to cross their path.
During their days in Florida, the pair helped researchers capture 19 pythons. Jake was credited with finding 13 while Ivy got the other 6.
Most of the snakes were up to eight-foot long, including one pregnant with 19 viable eggs.
Ivy’s been adopted since the two came back home, but Jake’s ready for any new adventure that might come along. After all, he’s become a star whose exploits have been chronicled in videos and newspaper articles read around the country.
Tens of thousands of Burmese pythons have been living in the Everglades – the lush green region that’s one of Florida’s most popular tourist attractions.
The snakes are usually dumped out by irresponsible owners, many who get tired of feeding them as they grow to monstrous proportions.
Some believe the problem may have escalated in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew, one of the most devastating storms in Florida history, destroyed a warehouse containing pythons – sending up fears of a possible real-life horror movie.
Seven years after Andrew’s destructive force swept through the state, the first Burmese pythons began to be spotted in the Everglades.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made it illegal to import Burmese pythons or move them across state lines.
Christina Romagosa, Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Services, spent time in the Everglades and watched as Jake and Ivy did their thing.
It was an experience she’ll never forget because it proved the snakes aren’t just frighteningly-long, unwanted visitors; they’re also basically consuming the wildlife, at least one swallowing a 76-pound deer.
"Our dogs were indeed a useful tool in locating pythons in the Everglades and, in that regard, I felt they were a big success," said Romagosa, an Auburn research fellow who grew up in Florida.
The National Park Service has counted more than 1,800 Burmese pythons in the Everglades National Park during the past 12 years, but that’s believed to be just a drop in the bucket when compared with many thousands more that might be lurking in the tall grass.
In their native habitats in Southeast Asia, pythons can grow to 20 feet or more in length and weigh around 200 pounds. Small game don’t have a chance when the snakes put the squeeze on them.
Romagosa said training Jake and Ivy involved introducing them to the scent of a Burmese python. One of the early methods was for them to get a whiff of one of the snakes kept inside a large bag.
Once the two dogs were let loose in the Everglades, they found the snakes weren’t lying quiet and still inside a bag. They were capable of slithering around in the grass.
"That’s when they realized they were moving targets," Romagosa said. "We make sure the dogs were kept several feet from the snakes once they spotted them and we were alerted."
A video distributed by Auburn showed AU handler Bart Rogers walking at a fast clip down a road with Jake moving from one side to the other in search of his prey.
The project began in November of 2010 and lasted until May 2011. It was pretty much kept under wraps until those who were involved began to release information about it.
That’s when the phone calls and emails began to arrive on campus from reporters and researchers seeking more details. Known as a football powerhouse, Auburn suddenly found itself in the national spotlight for a decidedly different reason.
"I’ve participated in surveys in looking for North African pythons, but this was my first time being involved in really big snakes," Romagosa said. "We hope to eradicate the North African python because they aren’t as large as the Burmese species."
Pythons of any species and size were rare in the Everglades until pet owners decided they didn’t want to keep feeding them and began to discard them.
Romagosa admitted she wasn’t squeamish when it came to looking a large python in the eye for the first time, but it did provide pause at times, especially when she and her friends tried to corral one.
"Four of us wound up trying to catch one under a rock," she recalled. "These snakes are very strong and that one had gotten into a hole and was pressing its body into it."
It took a lot of muscle to move the rock before they were able to extricate the 10-foot long female weighing about 40 pounds – relatively small for a python, but still a sight to behold.
Jake and Ivy, along with their two-legged "assistants," were all part of collaborative effort between the AU School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Animal Health and Performance Program.
Todd Steury, co-founder of AU’s Canine Detection Research Institute, said it is the largest program of its kind outside of the federal government. He thought more snakes would be found by Jake and Ivy, but wasn’t that disappointed.
The Auburn scientists and handlers quickly discovered dogs have a distinct advantage over humans when it comes to searching for pythons. They found dogs and their acute sense of smell were much faster than people trying to eyeball them in the tall grass and weeds.
People did have one big advantage by not being as susceptible to the sweltering humidity of a Florida summer, so the two dogs weren’t kept outside for extended periods.
Craig Angle, associate director of the Metcalf Veterinary Sports Medicine Program, helped to train Jake and Ivy for up to six months before setting them loose in the wild.
"There are very few dogs that can conduct python operations," said Angle. "Their training is physically and mentally intense. We had to progressively condition their bodies so they had the structure-durability speed, power, strength, cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance to conduct searches."
According to Angle, the dogs had to learn multiple operational tasks involving tracking and how to understand different wind currents.
"It is quite complicated to take a green dog and train it to locate a moving target like a snake," Angle said.
The intensive training resulted in two skillful little "detectives" capable of roaming far and wide to complete ecological missions.
Angle compared Jake and Ivy to the conditioning regimen of athletes and the results from the program pleased everyone involved including the dogs. They received treats for a job well done.
At the age of 4 (pushing 30 in doggie years), Jake has been given a new assignment – one not quite as challenging or as dangerous as spotting snakes. He’s been retrained to find newborn deer fawns and antlers that have been shed.
Auburn’s EcoDogs program, which began three years ago, is wide-ranging – designed to detect the scent of endangered and invasive species as well as locating destructive tree fungus as deep as three feet underground.
Whatever the assignment, Jake’s ready to go. He is one rambunctious, spirited Lab who can’t wait to get out in the woods or, best of all, the streams and ponds to do his part for his "AUma mater."
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.