Turtle Whisper uses dogs to find box turtles for St. Louis Zoo research


SPANISH LAKE, Mo. – John Rucker is a turtle whisperer with his five Boykin Spaniels at his side. On Wednesday, they were searching for box turtles on the Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Park campus in North St. Louis County.

“When turtles move, they leave a very faint scent trail on the ground,” John Rucker, Dog Handler for K9 Turtle Tracking said. “The beauty of these dogs is they root them out like hogs and bring them to hand.”

These canine gumshoes, with their soft-mouthed approach, bring the turtles to the scientists at the Saint Louis Zoo for their conservation efforts.

“They just have the right temperament,” Rucker said. “They can be trained to be very soft-mouthed to be gentle when they pick a turtle up.”

The dogs searched through the wooded section of the Wildcare Park, looking for three-toed box turtles. They found an older male box turtle that’s been hibernating

“…We’ve been doing this for the last nine years in Missouri,” Dr. Sharon Deem, Director of Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine, said. “Now we’re doing it here at Wildcare park to understand where they are and look into their health status.”

The box turtles are facing a deadly disease among amphibians, fish, and reptiles: a positive Ranavirus case was determined in box turtles in the area.

This subspecies is native to the South-Central part of the United States and is the official reptile of the state of Missouri.

After getting swabbed and weighed, the box turtle was fitted with a tracking device and temperature sensor and placed back where they found him.

The Saint Louis Zoo researchers will use the tracking devices to find their box turtles and remove the trackers so that they can go back to where they came from unharmed.

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