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Know the West

Scat dogs earn their keep

  Moja and Molly aren't ordinary Labrador retrievers - they earn their keep by locating animal scat for senior scientist Sam Wasser of the Center for Wildlife Conservation in Seattle, Wash.

"This is going to completely revolutionize the science of animal monitoring," Wasser said. Wasser has trained the dogs to sniff out bear and wolf droppings in the wild. He then analyzes the DNA from the scat to determine how many animals live in an area and where their prime habitat is located. By examining scat, Wasser can even identify the parents of a newborn cub.

"We can use the DNA in the scat to tell individuals apart," he said. "We can get the same amount of information as from radio-collaring but at one-fifth the price."

Wasser rewards the animals by playing fetch with them. He chose Moja, Swahili for "first," and Molly for their love of the game. "You look for a dog that has tremendous ball drive," he said, rather than picking a certain breed.

Initially, the dogs were trained by the Washington State Department of Corrections to detect the odor of marijuana. But after the first week with corrections officers, Wasser said, "the other dogs went from marijuana to heroin, and we went from marijuana to shit." He said the dogs have caught on quickly, especially once they were taken outside to roam forests and fields looking for poop. Now, Moja and Molly may be going to Tanzania, Africa, to track rhinos. But "funding is always a struggle," Wasser said, "especially since this is a new technology." Wasser said he and a colleague are writing a grant and trying to publish articles to increase awareness of their work.

For more information, write the Center for Wildlife Conservation, 5500 Phinney Ave. North, Seattle, WA 98103-5897.

* Jason Lenderman