John Rucker was a high school English teacher in North Carolina when he stumbled upon something interesting: Whenever he took his two dogs hiking, they would run into the tall grass and bring him back box turtles. Like a gift, his Boykin spaniels would gently lay them at his feet, unharmed.
He mentioned it to a few people, and soon, biology teachers from the University of North Carolina started reaching out to him and asking whether he would take their students out so they could put transmitters on the turtles to study them.
Several years later, the outings were so successful, Rucker was fielding calls from wildlife veterinarians and zoologists who were studying turtle populations.
“Because turtles aren’t easily detected in the wild by the human eye, I could see that I was on to something,” said Rucker, now 73.
Now, two decades later, Rucker’s spaniels are a highly in-demand, specialized team trained to sniff out box turtles by following their urine trails.
The dogs — Yogi, Ruger, Jenny Wren, Lazarus, Scamp, Skeeter and Rooster — travel across the country with Rucker helping to track turtle populations and identify threats and diseases.
Box turtles, which can live to be as old as 100, are fascinating to scientists and conservationists for various reasons, including they are vulnerable to environmental changes, so they are indicators of how ecosystems are faring around the world.