Kemps and K9s
Rita Adele Steyn
Have you ever been in love? When you are in love, almost all the things you do for your loved one are in the hopes of making them smile, right? No matter what the act or action is, it is usually in the pursuit of happiness, and sometimes, when you pursue happiness for another you end up making yourself happy too. Sometimes, you even make the world a better place…..
LOVE + DOGS + SEA TURTLES = OCEAN CONSERVATION MAGIC
Meet Christian Fritz, a man in love, and the Chief of Operations for K9s 4 Conservation. I spoke with him recently, and what he did for his beloved is all part of the story.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and about the initiative
“Sure. I am a graduate student. I’m actually pursuing my PhD in Criminal Justice right now [at Texas State University]. And it’s weird that I do sea turtle stuff with my work in criminal justice, but when I started graduate school for my master’s degree, I also started doing search and rescue with K9s [canines]. So for about five years now I’ve been really interested in K9s and detection work with K9s. And so right now I’ve got two search and rescue dogs that I have trained, one of them is a human remains detections dog, and the other is a live search and rescue dog.”
So how does that fit into the K9s 4 Conservation initiative then?
“Basically, I’ve got these working dogs and I do detection work with them, and scent detection work is pretty much the exact same no matter what scent you’re looking for. So if you are looking for human remains, or if you are looking for people, or if you’re looking for drugs, or if you’re looking for sea turtles or bat guano, you train the exact same way. So detection dog work, detection dog training – there’s a lot of crossovers to it.”
Okay, but when do the sea turtles arrive?
“So, now we get into the conservation side…because this past summer …my girlfriend’s birthday is in June, and she loves sea turtles, and we are in Central Texas, about three hours from the coast, and we’re trying to find something to do for her birthday that would involve sea turtles. So I googled ‘Corpus Christi and sea turtles’, because I know there’s an aquarium down there, but instead of getting the Corpus Christi Aquarium, I got the National Seashore program that finds sea turtle nests, and I though, oh this is neat. They collect the eggs and protect them, and then when the turtles hatch, they do these big public releases. And I fell down the click-hole, and 20-30 min later I’m deep into their page, and I was reading about how they actually find the sea turtle nests.”
And how DO they find the nests?
“What they do is they drive up and down the beach, they have tons of volunteers, and there’s a bunch of people that are seasonal workers for them, and they drive up and down the beach, all day every day, looking for turtles nesting.”
Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Facts:
Smallest of the seven sea turtle species, 75 – 100 lbs
Only sea turtle that nests during the day and in large groups called “arribadas”
Most endangered of all sea turtle species
Only females come ashore to nest, males never come ashore and are very hard to study
“What I learned was that after a series of turtle releases in an effort to return populations to Padre Island [in Texas], in 1996 the first female came back to nest there. And since then the population has been growing steadily, with 250+ nests in 2018 and 300+ in 2017. Potentially we could see 400 nests this year.”
So you were looking at the old way of nest detection, and you thought that there must be a better way?
“The Kemp’s Ridley’s nest in groups called arribadas which can number in the thousands, but on Padre Island, if there were 20 nests that was a big day, but it was on a 60-mile stretch of beach. So if one of them nests and someone stops because they see it, they measure the turtle, they mark the nest, and they have a whole checklist of things they do, but then they get back in their vehicle and continue driving up the beach to find more turtles. But if there is a turtle nesting at the exact same time, chances are it would have been missed, especially because these turtles like to nest when its windy, and you would see the turtle tracks in the wet sand, but then nothing. The tracks in the dry sand are completely blown out. Now you’re left with a quarter- to maybe a half-acre sized area where there is a sea turtle nest, but they don’t know where it is.”
The old way
“So what they do is they go out with probes, and they probe the sand, and they’re looking for a soft spot in the sand that’s only about 8 inches across. And it can take them hours or sometimes days to find a nest. Sometimes the turtles do a false crawl, I don’t know, maybe they get too excited, and they come up with all the other turtles but they don’t lay any eggs and then they just go back in the ocean, and the volunteers have spent three days trying to find turtle nests for nothing. And so I saw that on the website and I thought man, that seems really time consuming and a lot of really hard work – I bet we could get a dog to do that!”
Now we get to talk about the dogs!
‘So, I messaged the program, and I asked if they had dogs at all that worked, and I got a message back from the head of the program Dr Shaver. And she told me that they did – her little dog had been trained to find sea turtle nests but unfortunately he had passed on a year ago, so they didn’t have that capability anymore. And I said, well, do you want that capability? And she said yeah, but you know, it’s like $50 thousand dollars to buy a trained dog, and we’re not rolling in money here. So I said well, it’s sea turtles and adorable dogs, and if I can’t get that funded then I don’t know. And I offered to start a non-profit and provide the service for free. I drove down and met her, and I spent last summer training two sea turtle nest detection dogs, Saul and Dasha, and now they are ready to go for this year’s nesting season.”
Why are dogs so good at this?
“In search and rescue, when I’m looking for a person, a dog can cover as much area as 50 people in the same amount of time. We use the sand from the bottom of the nests to train them up – and that [training] can happen anywhere. So I train them up here using the sand because we can’t have any bits of a turtle, so we use the sand from the bottom of a nest. Then last year we would actually go down to the beach during an arribada, and actually field test the dogs and they were doing really good last summer. So I would assume that looking for a buried nest that has no visible sign it’s there, the dogs are going to be astronomically faster than a human. One of these dogs should be able to pinpoint a nest in a half-acre in 15-20 minutes at the most.”
“As long as dogs have some motivation that they are really, really motivated for, whether its food or toys or play, if we can get them motivated we can train them to find anything. Looking at dogs with longer legs for larger areas, but smaller ones like Callie might be a better resource in some cases. And hopefully we are planning on deploying up to six dogs this summer.”
And you are looking for help?
“The nesting season is mid-April through mid-July…so three dogs will be part-time and I will be there full time with two other dogs so I’m trying to find some handlers to help out at this point. So we are planning on six dogs maybe seven, depending on the handlers and who is ready. We are out there just in case, and when they need us, they need us as soon as possible”
And are there other potential uses for the skills of these dogs? What’s your vision for the future?
“We hope there’s going to be more and more turtles nesting. It’s on a positive trend – the need for these dogs is not going to go away. But we started branching out a little lately. Here in Texas we have cold-stunning issues, mostly with the juvenile green sea turtles. Last year over four thousand turtles were rescued from cold-stunning events. So having talked with the biologists who do that work, it’s really rough conditions, it’s 40 degrees (F), it’s rainy or windy, and you’re in knee-deep mud on these small islands trying to find these turtles. And I was like man, that’s really crappy, I can probably train a dog to do that! Then during these events we can take the dogs out on the boat, we get to these small islands, they jump out the boat, the dog runs around, there’s no turtle, move on. Lather, rinse, repeat. On to the next island, and if we find a turtle, we get that turtle, and come back to the boat. That could save a ton of time and effort on the part of the biologists, and also the dogs are going to be more accurate at finding them…if the turtles are hidden behind grass or under bubbles or mud. The dog doesn’t care, because the dog is trying to find a smell. We started training the dogs for that, and were are hoping that if there is some late season cold-stunning events we will be ready. I’d like to train some dogs to be used on the Atlantic Coast.”
And lastly, did this get you some really good points with the girlfriend?
“Pretty much all of the points. I told Dr Shaver about her and now she is a volunteer and is able to go out and handle the turtles with these organisations. She’s really excited about it.”
Thank you for your time Christian – and for all the work you, and the doggos, do at K9s 4 Conservation!