by Jessica Nelson
AUBURN – Allie Hunter is good humored and a little wry as she recounts a childhood experience that shaped her desire to be a wildlife scientist. For ‘take your daughter to work day’, she instead followed her local veterinarian for the day. What she found, she says with a laugh, was that she was “much more into the animal whole and awake, not sick and miserable.”
But there was no doubt, ever, that she would be working with animals.
Though her early love was wolves, and she would still love to work with them, Allie has gone where the opportunities were. During and after her time as an undergraduate, she picked up internships and volunteer opportunities to study whales, wolves, and even blue warblers (a northern song bird.)
For over a year she stayed busy with various projects, until she noticed that the work was harder to find. It was this, and the desire to begin a career rather than eking by with internships, which first drove her to begin thinking about graduate school. Wolves brought her to Auburn when she applied for a position working with her advisor, Dr. Todd Steury, on a red wolf viability analysis involving computer modeling. Though that position went to someone else, Dr. Steury offered her the chance to work with her current project instead. With Dr. Steury’s lab, Allie is doing nearly unprecedented research involving three of Alabama’s least studied species: spotted skunks, striped skunks, and long-tailed weasels.
The thing is, they seem to be disappearing, but no one knows why – or even if they are disappearing. When people started to notice that there were fewer skunks both as road kill and being reported as nuisances, they realized that nearly nothing was known about the habits of these animals in the southeast. No one knew where to begin looking for them.
That’s where Ms. Hunter and Dr. Steury come in. Funded by the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, Allie is conducting a statewide survey of the three mysteriously missing species. Her task, put simply, is to find out everything she can about them. The hope is that they can first find out where the animals are, and whether there is a problem that needs attention.
It isn’t easy – she thought perhaps she would be seeing results by now, but they are in fact just getting started. The animals are now so rare that no one is seeing them. They don’t even know where to look. Striped skunks were once a nuisance, living under porches and generally bothering rural homeowners. Not anymore.
So what are wildlife scientists to do? The traditional methods include traps, radio collars, and motion tripped cameras. However, Allie is using a newer method: detection dogs. There is nothing new, she concedes, about harnessing a dog’s intelligence and sense of smell. However, it’s relatively cutting edge to use detection dogs to find animals by locating scat (or dung). They have been able to work with Auburn University’s Canine Detection Training Center to train dogs to search out the excrement of the skunks and weasels. Programs like these have had success, Allie says, in other parts of the country and in Central America with large cats, wolves, and even caribou, and are becoming more popular. She planned to train the dogs herself until they realized that with the CDTC, her role would be limited to locating the scat for training purposes. She has to contact zoos and wildlife rehabilitators, and has been trying (with little success) to trap a specimen to solicit scat.
Allie conducts her research with seven dogs from the CDTC, primarily using Bishop, a 3-year-old black Labrador retriever trained to find striped skunk scat, and Sophie, a 15-month-old black Labrador retriever trained to find eastern spotted skunk scat. The dogs can also detect scat from black bears and other animals, after a training time of three to six weeks for the first scent and then a few days for additional scents.
One challenge Allie has had to weather is learning to be a diplomat because people are often reluctant to let her onto their land to trap or hunt scat. People are a little antsy, she’s found, about participating in studies that they think could lead to restrictions on what they can do on their own land. It’s just another challenge, she says. “Not only do we have to find our animals, we have to make everyone agree that we should have the animals.”
It will be some time before they know anything, but so far things seem serious. Allie is careful to add that the animals may have changed their habits, or, she jokes, “Maybe they just learned not to cross the road when there are cars coming.”
When pressed, Ms. Hunter admits that she has some theories of her own – for example, development is changing the landscape and this could have simply forced skunks and weasels to change with it. Also, the region has seen population explosions in coyotes, wild boars and deer, all of which compete with or hunt the three species she’s tracking. Deer and pigs clear out the underbrush where they hide, and we know from other studies that without protective cover, these nocturnal animals are easy prey for owls. Owls, it seems, lack a keen sense of smell. Coyotes not only eat some of the same foods as skunks and weasels, but they will often eat the animals themselves.
Another theory is, of course, disease. Skunks and weasels, Ms. Hunter says, are subject to a lot of the diseases pets get, such as canine distemper, so when contact with the pet population increases, so do these diseases.
Ms. Hunter hopes that by the end of her time at Auburn, they will begin to have some answers. She has a lot of field work ahead of her – she has all of the lands that she has access to mapped, and has randomly selected plots selected for survey. She will hit the field with the dogs and their handlers, and try to ferret out the secrets of long-tailed weasels and spotted and striped skunks.
And after that? She’s waiting to see how the job market looks. She observes amusedly that she may be headed back for a Ph.D. if things haven’t picked up in the wildlife field, although “I’d like to start my life at some point!” she says.
Allie also hasn’t forgotten about her first love, wolves. Sure, she says, she’d like to end up working with her favorite animal at some point. “But I’m learning to love a lot of species. Every species I work with, I end up discovering they each have their own cool little thing.”