A Box Turtle’s Best Friends
July 29, 2015
Some dogs fetch sticks. Others fetch Frisbees. Retired high school English teacher John Rucker’s dogs fetch box turtles. Rucker and his Boykin spaniels travel the country every summer, fetching the camouflaged reptiles for scientists and conservationists trying to study how these turtles are surviving in the wild. We chatted with Rucker over the phone while he and his dogs were on a turtle trip in Illinois about the unique roll his dogs play in turtle studies. Excerpts of the conversation are below.
Q: How did you and your dogs first get into finding turtles? It’s a pretty unusual role for dogs.
A: It sort of happened of its own accord. It started 14 years ago when I had two Boykin spaniels and one took it upon himself to start bringing me turtles. I thought it was strange but I would reward him when he did it and then put the turtle back, but then my second puppy started doing it too.
At first I kept it quiet. I didn’t want people training dogs to find turtles for the pet trade or for the black market. Eventually a friend of mine mentioned my dogs to some researchers at UNC Greensboro who were studying Eastern Box Turtles. They would send me requests to help them find turtles so they could put radio trackers on them and see what they did.
That’s how I first started getting requests. I did it for free for a number of years as sort of a fun thing, and the dogs would go out and find hundreds of turtles. Once word got out about how efficiently the dogs found turtles, I started getting requests to bring my dogs all over America to find turtles. Now we do that every summer.
Q: Your dogs are Boykin spaniels. Is there a specific reason why you use that breed?
A: There are a few reasons. The first reason is they are retrievers. Like black labs and golden retrievers, they are bred to pick up anything and bring it to their masters.
The second reason is Boykins don’t have massive jaws, so they can’t really hurt turtles. A black lab or a golden retriever could potentially crack a turtle shell with a hard bite, but the Boykins can’t.
The third reason is they are well suited to the conditions needed to find turtles. They are hot weather dogs, which you need when you’re hunting for turtles in the summer, and very willing to go into thickets, which many dogs will not do, but you need to do to find turtles.
Q: How good are your dogs at finding these turtles?
A: About four years ago, the Sioux Indian tribe in South Dakota contacted me because they were afraid their ornate box turtles had all gone extinct. According to their records they had seen maybe 13 turtles in the last 60 years.
The dogs went out and just started pulling hundreds and hundreds of turtles. The tribe was thrilled to see that the turtles were thriving.
Q: So these dogs are pretty special?
A: Absolutely. Sadly the two dogs I started with have both passed but now I use their children and grandchildren. Even still only about three pups in a litter of ten end up being cut out for this type of work, and I give the rest away.
Sometimes we will need to cover a square mile of ground that only has three turtles in it, and we are expected to find all of those turtles. So the dogs need to have a very low reward threshold to keep focused on that type of job. And they are expected to do this day after day after day. It’s a very Spartan life.
But people see the dogs out working and see a confidence in them. These dogs know they’re the best in the world at something. People say they look almost aloof. They have the same look of passion and control in their eyes as a border collie herding sheep. They’re a throwback to times when wild dogs had to live by their wits.
Q: What is day-to-day life like when you and the dogs are out on the job?
A: Normally I use two four-dog teams but right now I have six dogs with me: Mink, Jaybird, Rooster and Jennywren are my A-Team, and I also have Drake and Tango with me.
We usually hunt for turtles in the morning, and as I mentioned we can cover up to about a one-mile square in a morning. We collect as many turtles as we can find for whoever asked us to come out and then make sure we put them back where we found them.
Then we relax for the rest of the day. They stay on cables that I stake into the ground at a nearby campsite and they will sit like statues. Very Buddha-like. I’ll make myself a quick dinner and sleep in a tent, and the next day we’ll do it again or drive to the next spot.
Q: To do this summer after summer you must have an appreciation for box turtles. Why do you think box turtles are important?
A: Here in the United States, we have almost all of the world’s box turtles and they live all over the place. Their ability to completely close up their shells is considered an engineering marvel worldwide and we are blessed to have them here.
Once upon a time, we used to have a lot more of them. For example, the ornate box turtle used to number in the millions from South Dakota down to Mexico. But when we desecrated the tall-grass prairie, we wiped out 99% of them.
Now when the dogs find nesting populations of ornate box turtles, those habitats are almost instantly bought up or placed under restrictive covenants to protect the remaining turtles. We’ve found them in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota, all over the place and gotten them protected. The dogs are the best friends the box turtles have ever had.
Q: What does it mean to you to be out there with your dogs protecting these turtles?
A: As far as I know, I’m the only person who does this to protect turtles and I could go on about this for an hour.
The whole thing came out of nowhere and I feel like it’s a gift that just dropped into my lap. It feels like a mission and I feel almost evangelical about it. I’m in my late 60s, and it’s hard for a guy my age to do this. But one of the things I can be most proud of is the role we play in protecting these box turtles in North America.
Q: You’ve been doing this for more than a decade. In your estimation, how are the box turtles doing?
A: I would say they are better off and worse off than anybody realizes.
In North Carolina, for example, there is a great population along the Eno River, but from Durham, east to the Atlantic Coast, the turtles are almost completely wiped out due to agriculture. And you see this along the coastal plains of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas too.
You may see a turtle or two living in a patch of trees but I call that a “living dead population.” Without any tall grassy fields for newborn young to hide in, they will be 100% killed off by predators. And it is all but impossible to get turtles reintegrated to those areas.
On the other hand, along the old logging areas of the Appalachian Mountains in Western North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, the forests have returned and so have the box turtles. There are some spots where you will find four turtles in a single acre. That’s pre-industrial levels, pre-Columbian even. You can see the same thing in woodsy patches of New England and New York.
In South Dakota, there are gigantic populations of ornate box turtles, in spots where the land has not been overgrazed. In Missouri and Louisiana, there are spotty and uneven but surprisingly good populations of three-toed box turtles in areas without agriculture.
You can even find them in urban areas. Within the city limits of Washington DC, Rock Creek Park is crawling with Eastern Box Turtles.
So human activities have really harmed box turtles, but they’re not teetering on the brink of extinction.
— Daniel Lane
Daniel Lane covers science, engineering, medicine and the environment in North Carolina.