March 8, 2010
On the Scent of Poachers
Rescued dogs help game wardens catch wildlife criminals
by Julie Falconer
By mid-afternoon on training day, the smell of decaying body parts starts to waft through the sprawling warehouse, an equipment depot at the California Department of Fish and Game’s regional office in Rancho Cordova. A strong breeze blowing through a gap under the south-side door passes over a plastic bucket with aging abalone, moves through the wooden pallets covering recently collected roadkill, and circulates to the opposite end of the building where a search is about to begin.
Rookie-in-training Jin has spent the morning outside, bouncing in and out of nearly a dozen watercraft in pursuit of invasive quagga and zebra mussels. Even so, the lanky yellow Labrador exudes intense energy, haunches vibrating with the effort to sit still. At the other end of the leash, game warden Lori Oldfather is also excited—and anxious for her partner to pass this hurdle to becoming a certified detection dog.
At a signal from the judge, warden and dog stride briskly across the concrete floor and down aisles bisected by towering wooden shelves, retired office furniture, and a sporting goods store’s worth of outdoor gear. They work side by side in a methodical pattern that tests Oldfather’s investigative skills as much as Jin’s olfactory talents. When the dog shows interest in an area that turns up empty, her handler must calculate where the odor has originated and guide the search to those spots.
They locate the first two targets—a bear paw wrapped in plastic and the tattered remnants of a band-tailed pigeon—in quick succession. With each find, Jin receives lavish praise from Oldfather followed by a brief play session with a rope toy.
The pup then breezes past the third hidden object and heads to a group of pallets piled high with boxes, where an odor strong enough to disturb a human nose is now emanating. She scrambles atop the shifting mountain of cardboard, nosing each surface at a frenzied pace. The air is moving toward the back wall, and the scent is pooling several feet behind the source, temporarily stumping the team. But Oldfather senses they’re close to a find and guides Jin around the bottom perimeter until they locate their quarry, a squirrel carcass wedged beneath the wooden slats.
Backtracking in search of the missed item, the determined dog eventually discovers the faded deer leg, hidden in a basket attached to a bicycle. Oldfather excitedly rehashes the details of the search with the judge, an experienced dog trainer and warden with the DFG special operations unit. Meanwhile, Jin races down the aisle after her toy, unaware that she’s completed a major milestone in her new career and will soon be directing her energy to the vast and expanding underworld of wildlife poaching.