Friday, March 30, 2007

Labrador retriever searches for beached dolphins and whales

KEY LARGO — Who wouldn't want a lick from a rescue worker?

Usually you just get the standard flashing lights, and possibly a ride on a stretcher. But a big, wet lick on the face in the warm March sunshine? Never.

Chris Blankenship and Cloud watch a bottlenose dolphin during a training session in Key Largo. The dog has found a dead pilot whale, a stranded dolphin and a necropsied animal that detached from a boat.

Until Cloud. The 3-year-old black Labrador retriever — all wagging tail and goofy, long, pink tongue — is the first dog trained to sniff out dead or injured dolphins. At least as far as Chris Blankenship knows.

And Blankenship, a marine biologist with more than 20 years of experience studying marine mammals, should know. He works with Cloud at Dolphin Cove, a research facility and tourist destination in Key Largo. In fact, Cloud lives with Blankenship, who is her boss, partner and owner.
"She's become one of my best friends," Blankenship said. "She's the perfect dog. She has a phenomenal nose. She has a nose that, now, canine officers say they wish they'd kept her. But she's mine now."

Cloud already has found a dead pilot whale, a stranded dolphin and a necropsied animal that was being towed behind a boat on a rope when the rope broke and the animal sank, Blankenship said.
"That was a submerged animal underwater that she found," he said.

Blankenship dreamed up the idea for a dolphin-sniffing dog in 2005, after roughly 80 dolphins became stranded off Marathon Key. About 30 of them died.

"The stranded animals died of dehydration, things like that," Blankenship said. "I thought, 'If we had some way of locating the animals ...' "

Blankenship contacted his colleague and buddy Beth Smart, executive director and CEO of the Palm Beach County-based Dolphin & Marine Medical Research Foundation. Smart agreed to sponsor a dolphin rescue dog.

She wouldn't be specific but said it costs thousands of dollars a year to care for Cloud.

Back then, she didn't see a reason Blankenship's plan wouldn't work, she said.

"Dogs have long been used for all types of odor detection work — drugs, explosives, lost people," Smart said.

So Blankenship and Smart, with a combined four decades of experience studying marine mammals, went looking for a dog.

They wanted a dog who could swim, was petite enough to fit on a boat and had a "virgin nose."
They found Cloud in Pennsylvania. She was perfect, except she was black, and they feared she might get too hot in the Florida sun.

"Probably, down here, it would be better to go with a golden Lab," Blankenship said. "But she's pretty good at finding shade."

Cloud finished her training in April. Since then, she's been going out on a boat with Blankenship for about two hours a day. When she smells a dolphin, injured or dead, she's supposed to sit and bark.

Cloud knows it's time to work, Blankenship said, when he straps on her bright orange vest. It reads: Working Dog, DO NOT PET.

During a quick ride around Tarpon Basin on a pontoon boat called Palm Beach, Cloud paced from bow to stern. Sometimes, she paused and let her ears glide on the cool breeze. Finally, she sat and barked.

Her guests perked up. Dolphin?

No, just snack time.

"She says, 'Hey, I'm out here working, you better give me a cookie,' " Blankenship said.
At 3 years old, Cloud still has the nervous energy of a puppy. "She's young, I'm old," Blankenship said.

Back onshore at Dolphin Cove, Blankenship wanted to show off Cloud's skills. He left a cooler with blood and other fish parts in the parking lot and waited for Cloud to find it. She went right for it, but didn't sit and bark like she's supposed to. It was more of a bark, bark, bark, wag, wag, wag kind of alert.

Blankenship gave her a treat anyway.

"Good girl, good girl," he said.

"This is going to be of international significance," said Dr. Robert Stevens, a veterinarian who volunteers at the Marine Mammal Conservancy. "People all across the world are working on stranded marine animals. This is a great way to find them in a hurry."

Stevens, who is also Cloud's veterinarian, said he's watched her work.

"She's going to be wonderful," he said. "She can already alert on things incredibly tiny, like routine blood samples. That's the tiniest little bit of blood from a normal animal."

Smart, who has studied dolphins for about 20 years, is also eager to watch Cloud's progress.
"A lot of times these animals get stranded under mangroves," she said. "You can't see them. There's no streetlights. There's a moon if you're lucky. If Cloud is able to patrol the coastline, we have a higher, much higher chance of getting the animal the care it needs."

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"