Training dogs that rescue … trees?

Spring is in the air, and for my part of the world, that means pine pollen is, too, turning the air and everything else a dusty yellow.

I can always gauge the level of spring fever by the number of tree and flower photos in Facebook status updates I see in a given day. Yesterday’s beginning of spring brought a profusion of blooms online. One friend posted a photo of a gorgeous bonsai tree blazing with fuchsia-colored blooms. Another posted a picture of Monet’s beautiful painting Spring (Fruit Trees in Bloom).

A third friend posted a link to a story about a pear tree blooming at the site of the 9/11 memorial. The tree had been found severely damaged among the rubble after the attacks, was relocated and nursed back to health, and then replanted at the memorial site. Isn’t it amazing that someone thought to bother saving that tree and now visitors to the site can see it as an offering of beauty and hope and nature’s resilience?

Let’s turn back to that pine pollen, for a moment, and some amazing dogs who are being trained to make sure pine trees stick around and keep on giving us their tangible, hopeful announcement of spring every year.

Auburn University is doing some really cool work in a project called EcoDogs that trains dogs to detect certain items of ecological interest: animal droppings, baby fawns, boa constrictors and even tree fungi. That’s right: tree fungi.

Researchers are training the dogs to find a fungus that attacks the roots of Southern pines. With the dogs’ help, they can pinpoint which trees in a strand are already infected and manage the surrounding healthy trees more effectively. This tree-loving girl thinks that’s pretty darn awesome. And deserving of an Auburn shout out: War Eagle!

Saving the Everglades
Auburn’s EcoDogs program has even further endeared itself to my heart by helping save the Everglades one boa constrictor at a time. This story is actually how I first heard about the dog program . The Miami Herald published an article this past Saturday – complete with photos of dogs and their discoveries – about the dogs tracking boa constrictors that are destroying the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades.

I’ve never visited but have always been a bit afraid of the Everglades and all of the scary creatures that call it home. Well … mostly I’m just afraid of the alligators that call it home. But then I heard that foreign invaders (the boas) were even eating the alligators, and I started to feel sorry for the alligators.

It turns out that humans caused the problem by buying “pet” boa constrictors and then releasing them (or losing them) into the wild. The snakes have had a field day in the Everglades because nothing there has adapted to dealing with them. It seemed like a hopeless problem to me.

But humans are working to solve the problem, too. And the EcoDogs program gives me hope that there are some problems in nature that we can help solve, even if we were the ones causing the mess in the first place.

And then in that moment of hope, it occurred to me that this is one of the ways God takes the evil of the world and works it for good: human carelessness gives rise to human learning and research, and someone with a passion for training dogs and solving ecological challenges gets to spend all day hunting boa constrictors down in Florida’s Everglades.

Now, I don’t want to leave you with images of snakes in your mind, and so I’ll post a picture of my own dog. She’s no EcoDog, and I’m not sure what she’d do if she ever encountered a boa, but she will track squirrels and lost tennis balls and peanuts.

"I won't hunt boas, but I will pose for peanuts."

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