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margie remains very quiet. Around her in the sun-dappled forest, six dogs pick up her scent and begin to circle. She pulls her head and legs into her shell and closes it tight like a trap, but the dogs are clearly professionals.
Ruger, a year and a half boykin spaniel, prevails. He clings his jaw around Margie’s shell and carries the 25-year-old Eastern box turtle like a trophy at the feet of the turtle hunter John Rucker.
“Good boy,” praises Rucker as his six dogs – all Boykin Spaniels – celebrate around him. “Where did you find this big turtle?”
A trained dog fetches a box turtle. Photo: Mike Belleme / The Guardian
In Ruger’s mouth, Margie looks like a speckled sun, each of its 13 segments is streaked with black and yellow patterns like tiny ink blots, as if she is asking us what you see? A box turtle – the unofficial mascot of introverts and slow pokes, an indicator species in decline.
Margie is completely unharmed, if probably a little surprised and jostled. This is not their first human rodeo. Equipped with a transmitter attached to her tank, she is one of the turtles tracked by citizen scientist Meredith Brooks in the 1,000-acre neighborhood of Sherwood Forest, a few miles outside of Brevard, North Carolina.
Brooks, known as the “turtle godmother” to neighbors, has been volunteering in the area since 2008 for the Box Turtle Connection, a nationwide project that aims to collect a century of data on North Carolina’s official state reptile. as well as to identify threats and develop a long-term conservation strategy.
Rucker was hired to work with Earthshine Nature Programs and the Sherwood Forest Community to determine the populations of box turtles. Photo: Mike Belleme / The Guardian
Box turtles are slow, says Steve O’Neill, executive director of the Earthshine Nature Program and Brooks’ area project leader. They mature slowly, reproduce slowly, and have a very low reproduction rate. They are also long-lived animals that can live up to 100 years. O’Neill describes box turtles as “resilient, armored creatures,” but says they are “vulnerable to anything we do as humans.”
The terrapin habitat is becoming increasingly fragmented as a result of human development. Creatures of habit, a box turtle might discover that a long route to lay eggs is now shared by a highway. They are hit by cars, killed by lawnmowers, fall into swimming pools, attacked by dogs or bulldozed. They are also prone to being sold in the pet market. And because they’re camouflaged and relatively mysterious, they’re hard to find, making studying their population and health inherently difficult.
Enter John Rucker who, as far as he knows, is the only professional dog turtle tracker in the United States. Rucker is tall and lanky, has a gray beard, and is very active at 73. As a former high school teacher, revolutionary war fan and once avid contrabancer, he is also a particularly skilled storyteller.
The dogs are trained with praise, not treats. Photo: Mike Belleme / The Guardian
At the heart of Rucker’s turtle chase is his relationship with his dogs, which is built on trust and respect. He trains them with “Praise from Papa” (refers to himself) and never with treats. “Everything is driven by love,” says Rucker. “If they’re looking for treats, the dog will stop after an hour or two with no luck. But when they hunt for love, they hunt day after day. “
Over the years, Rucker says, he has also developed a “kinship” with turtles, those “good dinosaurs” who live in the confusion and chaos of the modern world. “I mean, I don’t know how to talk to Siri. I don’t know how to find places with GPS, ”says Rucker. “I don’t really fit into this world. I also see myself as a dinosaur. “
Rucker’s turtle tracker career began completely by accident in the late 1990s. After his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Rucker sold his Montana home, quit his teaching job, and returned to North Carolina to take care of his father.
There one of his dogs, a boykin spaniel named Buster Brown, began to rescue turtles himself. “I think maybe he could tell that I was depressed because of my father’s illness and he brought me turtles, maybe he thought it would cheer me up,” says Rucker.
Tracking turtles became a hobby, but word of mouth soon spread throughout the scientific community. He started receiving calls from universities asking for help. Now, more than twenty years later, Rucker spends much of the year in his off-grid cabin in Montana, working with his dogs and occasionally training new boykin spaniel pups.
In a YouTube video, Rucker documents the first year of a 2019 Boykins litter. It’s December, the ground outside is littered with fresh snow, and Rucker reaches into the whelping box to get a newborn puppy.
“The question is, are there a super dog or two in this litter of three?” he says to the camera. In a different setting, the pups are older and John is taking them outside for the first time. He begins training them with a fiberglass armor painted to look like a box turtle. Months later, the pups jumped through snowdrifts two feet high. One of these puppies is Ruger, who has actually proven to be a “superdog”.
In early spring, Rucker sets off with a dog team in an E-350 van and spends the next four months hopping back and forth between turtle tracking jobs. Its commercial clients include universities, herpetologists, and conservation groups interested in monitoring turtle populations and their health. His biggest customer is Dr. Matt Allender, director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory, whose team accompanies Rucker across Illinois and Tennessee, searches for box turtles and studies their health that can decimate a turtle population. To date, Allender’s is the largest box turtle health project in North America.
The naturalist Steve O’Neill, who has worked with Rucker for years to track down turtles in North Carolina, calls the Ruckers service “priceless”. He says, “It just can’t be compared. There is no other way to collect this amount of data in such a short time. “
A box turtle with a GPS tracking device. Photo: Mike Belleme / The Guardian
But traveling with six working dogs is like “walking on a razor,” says Rucker. He is always afraid that the van will break down or the air conditioning will fail. His transporter is equipped with a kennel for each dog, several reserve air conditioning systems, a generator and two roof racks. At night, Rucker and his dogs camp near the turtle tracking sites or sleep in Walmart parking lots.
“When I’m looking for turtles in the fields or in the forest, it’s an alternative to the stressful artificial world that humans have created with telephone lines and cell phone masts, traffic lights and red lights,” says Rucker. “The dogs and I have nothing to do with it. We find it totally alien. The world with which we connect is nature and the world of the turtles. “
Each turtle season is filled with special challenges and surprises: difficult terrain, bad weather, poisonous snakes. Over the years, his dogs had nine copper head bites and one prairie rattlesnake bite, although none of them were fatal.
The 2021 season began with Rucker and the dogs racing across the Autobahn in the E-350, overtaking a blizzard that would have locked them in for weeks. At one point he came across a stinging nettle so bad that he had to carry the dogs through it one by one. And one evening in May, after a long day looking for turtles in Illinois, the passenger seat of the van spontaneously caught fire. The dogs watched from the grass as Rucker hit the flames with his backpack until the fire went out.
A trained boykin spaniel sniffs out a box turtle. Photo: Mike Belleme / The Guardian
Despite the challenges, Rucker plans to continue the work until his body can no longer. “I want to make the world aware of the plight of the turtles as their habitat is being broken up and fragmented,” he says. “The more people know about box turtles, the more friends they have.”
Late July in western North Carolina is a rare dry day in a series of rainy days, and the forests are thick and emerald green. Here, where the dogs come to work, the bulldozers are just around the corner, and the property is intended for a new house. To brave the heat, they start turtle hunting before 8 a.m.
Rucker wades through fern carpets and a thick thicket of dog pancakes and lingonberries, past russula mushrooms with turtle-sized nibbles. “Hey dogs, hey dogs, find turtle, find turtle,” he commands as the dogs spread around him.
Around 10 a.m., Rucker’s shirt was drenched in sweat and the dogs were tired. They are at his feet, tongues lolling, wide grins. Every location is different, he says. Sometimes the conditions are just right. For example, last week in a location near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the dogs found a turtle every three to four minutes.
But today Margie is the only turtle found. Ruger’s tongue lies over the dome of Margie’s shell. Brooks apologizes to her, frees her from Ruger’s mouth and promises to bring her a snail for her problems.