The challenge, of course, is to find the fresh material from secretive animals that are often solitary and only part-time above-grounders, as is the giant armadillo. The first three years of Carly’s study, and other studies like it, had begun to show such promise that by 2010 human-dog research teams had gone global. Scent dogs are now used to study grizzly bears, Mexican wolves, wolverines, fishers, Javan rhinos, Indochinese tigers, Amur tigers, and other secretive mammals. The roots of this booming human-canid collaboration, however, trace back to an animal shelter outside Seattle, Washington.
If popular belief grants cats nine lives, dogs most certainly deserve at least two or three. Heath Smith told me that he had no opinion on animal karma when he entered the local shelter in Enumclaw, Washington, on a gray day in March 2004. He was not on a mercy expedition. Once inside the pound, Smith began bouncing a tennis ball off the concrete floor. Some dogs wagged their tails and rose to lick the visitor’s hand but ignored the ball. A long-legged black Labrador pressed against the edge of his cage. He ignored the stranger but fixated on the delightful object Smith tossed in the air. The dog trembled with excitement and panted heavily. Here on display was precisely the kind of overwrought behavior bound to discourage even bighearted adopters. The shelter employee offered some details. “He was picked up running along the highway; must have gotten lost while hunting. You sure that’s the one you want?” Heath nodded after taking a minute to confer with his boss by cell phone. “Great,” answered the relieved keeper, “because he had twenty-four hours left.”
Outside the pound, Heath escorted Mason into the cab of his pickup for the drive home. He turned onto I-90 and made for the house of his employer-landlord, Sam Wasser, a renowned conservation biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Heath was an accomplished dog handler, and Mason was one of the first candidates to become a new breed of working canine. The dog seemed delighted to be out of the kennel and most interested in the tennis ball hidden in the pocket of the person he was now accompanying. So began an improbable journey, from incarcerated stray on death row to professional scent dog set loose in the Brazilian outback.
Carly was one of Sam’s students. She decided to try out scent dogs in her pilot study site, Emas National Park, in south-central Brazil, home to all of the Cerrado’s largest vertebrates. “Ema” is the Brazilian name for the greater rhea, an ostrich relative that is common there. So are many other species that could be dangerous to a domestic animal bounding across the wild Cerrado. Having been trained to heel was vital if a dog were to stumble upon white-lipped peccaries, for example, which could tear a dog to shreds. The Cerrado is also home to fifty-three species of snakes. Carly wore snake guards to protect herself from the poisonous ones. Vipers, rattlesnakes, and fer-de-lances are all capable of killing a canine in one deadly strike. She was worried about unexpected encounters with anacondas, too. So she carried a machete in case there was a confrontation.
Protected areas are the best places to sniff out giant anteaters and giant armadillos in the Cerrado. Most grassland and dry forest mammals of South America are essentially rain forest species that have adapted to residing in seasonal forests and savannas. Thus, their extinction in the Cerrado may not spell the end of the species because others of their kind may still lurk in numbers in the forest. The maned wolf is an exception. Biologists call it an “obligate” grassland species because it cannot survive in the forest, having adapted, like the lion, to hunt its prey in open country.
Parks such as Emas, which is 1,320 square kilometers in size, are established to protect rare species, and they often perform well for habitat specialists and global rarities that live at high densities in small areas. The wandering kind of rarities, such as the maned wolf and giant anteater, that live at low densities can be much harder to protect. Outside of the deep Amazon, their world is changing by the minute. Circumstantial evidence shows that many rare tropical carnivores disappear when they leave the safe confines of their reserves.