Python-Tracking Puppy Trains to Patrol Everglades
for National Geographic News
|February 3, 2005|
In their growing battle against giant pythons that have invaded the Florida Everglades, national park officials there have recruited an unlikely ally: a beagle puppy nicknamed "Python Pete."
For the past few months Lori Oberhofer, an Everglades wildlife technician, has been training her seven-month-old puppy to pick up the scent of the invasive Burmese pythons.
Once he has completed his training, Python Pete will be a "first responder unit," says Oberhofer. His task: to track down snakes and bark after they have been sighted, enabling park officials to capture and remove the huge pythons.
Oberhofer got the idea from a similar program in Guam, where she researched brown tree snakes four years ago.
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have been using Jack Russell terriers on that Pacific Ocean island to detect invasive brown tree snakes in airport cargo. The USDA aims to prevent the snakes from slipping out of Guam, where they have wiped out bird populations.
"I figured that if a terrier could be trained to sniff out brown tree snakes, then perhaps a beagle could be trained to sniff out pythons," Oberhofer said.
The Burmese pythons are castoffs from South Florida's burgeoning trade in exotic pets. One of the world's largest snakes, the python is a popular (and legal) pet snake. More than 144,000 Burmese pythons have been imported into the U.S. in the last five years.
As babies, Burmese pythons may be cute. But they grow into 15-foot-long (5-meter-long) beasts, prompting some owners to get rid of the snakes by dumping them into the forests of South Florida.
Now the giant pythons are breeding in the Everglades, threatening to overrun the national park. They may be preying on native mangrove fox squirrels and wood storks, and they could be competing with the threatened eastern indigo snake for both prey and space. Stunned parkgoers have even spotted the pythons in epic battles with native alligators.
From the mid-1990s through 2003, park officials removed 52 Burmese pythons from the park. In 2004 alone, 61 animals were taken out. Fifteen snakes were captured last month.
"There is no indication that the problem is letting up," said Skip Snow, an Everglades wildlife biologist.
Oberhofer bought Pete from a Missouri beagle breeder and paid U.S. $250 for the eight-week-old puppy. She spent another $200 having the dog shipped to Florida. She initially planned to name him Paco but decided he "looked more like a Pete."
"I was hoping he had a good nose for tracking and would be a good dog to train," she said. "If not, he was still going to be a great companion for me."
Beagles are often used as detector dogs. That's because they are small, friendly, and not threatening to people in places where they are commonly used, such as airports and cargo holds. Like most dogs, beagles are capable of detecting many different types of odors.
"I'm working him under the assumption that the Burmese python has a specific odor that is particular to this species only," Oberhofer said. "I plan to eventually test Pete to see if he can detect a python from our native Everglades snakes."
For Pete's twice-a-week training sessions, Oberhofer puts a captive live python in a mesh bag and drags it through a grass field for 50 feet (15 meters) to create a scent trail. There, she leaves the bagged snake and Pete's favorite rope toy.
She then puts Pete into a special harness, which alerts him that it's time to play the find-the-snake game. Pete is brought on a leash to the start of the trail, where Oberhofer tells him, "Find it!"
Pete springs into action and wildly charges ahead, plowing through the grass to find the snake and his favorite toy.
"He does very well on each trial and always brings me to the snake," Oberhofer said. "He continues to show improvement each time I take him out to train. It hasn't taken him long to figure out that smelling a python means playtime for him."
As he does in training, Pete will stay on a leash once he is on real missions. The aim is to keep the beagle from becoming a snake snack.
"My plan is to use him along the park roads and trails but not out in the water," Oberhofer said. "The scenario I envision is getting a report of a python, perhaps seen by a tourist or park employee, and I would then take Pete on a leash to the site where the python was last seen, and he would track, on the leash, and find the python for us."
She hopes Pete will be ready to go to work in another couple of months. But she and other park officials emphasize that Pete is just one of several control methods they are researching to combat the pythons.
Said Snow, the biologist, "He's another tool in our toolbox."
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