We all know just how destructive snails can be to our gardens but the Giant African Snails are a very special problem. Considered one of the world’s most invasive species, destroying crops, threatening native snails and ecosystems, these snails also carry several parasites which can be harmful to both humans and plants.
In 2010, these snails were first detected on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos Islands, a place where rare wildlife that have evolved over millennia, some of which are found nowhere else on earth and 40% of the 95 vertebrate species are endangered. The single most prominent cause is invasive species.
The solution: sniff out the snails and eradicate them. And, as we all know, there’s no nose like a dog’s nose.
The Rescue Dogs
The Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine Agency for Galápagos of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador, Dogs for Conservation, and Island Conservation partnered to launch this first-ever canine detection program for invasive species in the Galápagos, with support from Galápagos Conservancy and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. The Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine Agency for Galápagos of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador ultimately aims to have detection dogs to review high-risk organic imports at all airports and ports that service Galápagos.
The dogs that make up this innovative program are Darwin and Neville, both rescues. Now both dogs are paying it forward and saving other wildlife from destructive, invasive Giant African Snails in the Galápagos Islands.
Neville was found in a shelter and saved by a Labrador rescue group in Texas. Dogs for Conservation evaluated him and immediately saw that he had huge potential to be a working dog and that for these same reasons he would not make a good pet for the average person… he needed a job! Neville is a big goofy puppy who loves to play. His zest for life knows no bounds and he is almost always focused on his favorite toy – a tennis ball.
Darwin was donated by a breeder to an organization that works with prison inmates to train service dogs. He lived in a prison with his trainer for the first 18 months of his life. However, Darwin was too hyperactive and was unable to be trained to perform specific tasks. After evaluating him for detection work, Dogs for Conservation acquired him and began training him to detect snails. This shift in Darwin’s job description and work environment has been very positive for Darwin who is now much calmer and more focused. Darwin loves to play fetch and relax with his handler when he isn’t working. He is a very happy, easy going dog who loves every person and every dog he meets.
Training the Dogs
Dogs for Conservation based out of Texas was consulted and is now leading the dog training. They traveled to Galápagos with the two trained dogs to work with six Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine Agency for Galápagos of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador staff handlers and trainers – many who had never worked with dogs before and had to learn canine behavior, learning theory, scent theory, care of each dog, training methods and handling skills.
“This has been a great experience to interact with this super intelligent dog who is doing a critical job to conserve the Galápagos,” said Fernando Zapata, principal handler for Neville Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine Agency for Galápagos of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador. It wasn’t just the handlers who had to learn new things – both dogs required a period of acclimation to the Galápagos and their new job. The dogs could only be trained on dead snails in the USA because of biosecurity risks for this highly invasive species, so some additional training was needed upon arrival in Galápagos to transition them both to live snails and snail eggs.
While a lot of work, both handlers and dogs took to their mission with dedication.
“In order to study a species, whether it be an endangered species or an invasive species, biologists need to be able to collect information. Unfortunately, it is often extremely difficult or even impossible to properly survey for specific species due to limitations in technology and/or human eyesight,” said Rebecca Ross, Executive Director of Dogs for Conservation. “There is a reason the U.S. military has spent so much money investing in their dogs, and that is because no one has found a tool or machine that can compete with a dog’s nose!”
Photos courtesy Dogs for Conservation