About John Rucker:
John Rucker, a North Carolina native, taught high school English in Virginia, Montana, Alaska, and North Carolina. He owned his own commercial fishing boat in Alaska for nine years. He is the author of four books - The Barney Years, Melancholy Bay, The Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year, and North Carolina, Portrait of the Land and Its People. He is also enjoys photography and fly fishing.
Karen Judge, also a native of North Carolina, has had a life-long love of animals and an avid interest in nature conservation. She has worked as a Registered Nurse in North Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia, and Tennessee. She is the mother of a wonderful daughter and four pets (all rescues), two dogs (Casey and Cricket) and two cats (Henry and Eugene). She is certified in equine massage therapy. She worked on the Savannah, Georgia based Dolphin Project in the late 80s and early 90s as a volunteer. Other interests include photography and kayaking.
John lives in northeast Tennessee, several hundred yards from Cherokee National forest, easily reached on foot from his back yard. This 350,000 acre natural area is one of the great strongholds of the eastern box turtle, supporting several turtles per acre. Here John quietly began his turtle research, initially as a personal hobby, in 1999. At first, John told no one of his turtledogs, fearing that others might attempt to train dogs to find turtles to be sold in the pet trade. Through personal friends, word reached the UNC-Greensboro campus where faculty members, Ann Somers and Kathy Matthews, began to use John and his turtledogs in research projects. In 2006 , John was invited to speak on using dogs in box turtle research at the National Box Turtle Symposium held at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, NC. Among others, John met John Byrd, who has taught biology in the Oak Ridge, Tennessee public schools for over 35 years. John Byrd was just beginning a box turtle study, using high school students to visually locate the eastern box turtle. The students found turtles at a rate of approximately .25 turtles per hour. The purpose of the study was to determine the impact on the indigenous box turtle population in and around a 25 acre clear-cut on the grounds of the University of Tennessee Arboretum.
Karen is living in the Research Triangle area of NC, but hopes to return to Tennessee in the near future.
A story about John and his Turtle Dogs.
By John Rucker
People often ask me how I trained my Boykin spaniels, Buster, Sparky and Jake, to be "turtle dogs". I tell them that it happened entirely spontaneously. I live within a half mile of the border of the Cherokee National Forest in upper east Tennessee. Back in the late 1990's, I was seeing eastern box turtles each time I went naturalizing, looking for wild flowers or bird-watching. Buster, who is now seven years old, was just turning a year old at the time, and was ready to retrieve anything in which I expressed an interest. One day as we walked past a brightly colored male turtle, which was eating a mushroom, I merely remarked, "Buster, what's that?" Buster sniffed it curiously, and we continued our walk. Not 100 years further down the trail, I was amazed when Buster ran up to me with a different turtle, closed up tight, in his mouth. Trained to be soft-mouthed, Buster let it fall into my open hands. I praised him, and as soon as he was out of sight, I hid it in the leaves and continued walking. In less than five minutes, he returned with another turtle. That early June morning, just after a rain, Buster brought me about a dozen turtles, and on that day, for me, a new sport was born.
Buster brought me turtles just as fast as he could find them all that summer, and I began to engrave a tiny number in the bottom of each shell, with a battery-powered engraving tool. I kept a crude map of the location of each capture, catching some of the individuals several times a month. I became fascinated by everything related to these contemporaries of the dinosaurs, among the oldest living creatures on earth. As I handled both young and old turtles, I became humbled with the realization that these individuals would be alive long after I am gone.
By the next summer, I acquired another Boykin Spaniel puppy, Sparky. He immediately began to mimic Buster's behavior. Within a few weeks, I was hearing not one but two loudly popping noses as the turtle dogs investigated every rotting log, honeysuckle thicket, and blackberry patch. They began to work as a team, making long, parallel casts, working entire mountainsides, sometimes scoring "doubles".
Our best "bag" was 47 turtles in a single six hour outing. Now, my third Boykin has been bitten by the turtle bug. At the mere speaking of the "t" word, three pairs of yellow eyes burn like glowing embers. When I walk onto the front porch in the stillness of the morning in my chest waders and wading shoes with the fly rod in my hand, not a single Boykin snout will protrude from a dog house. Yet if the green day pack is on my back, three svelte turtle researchers glide into view and begin stretching, snorting to clear nasal passages, and scratching in the dirt with their hind feet, throwing pine needles and other debris into the air. I often have a turtle in my hand before I have left the yard, and I eagerly check to see if it is a numbered "recapture" or a "new" turtle.
With my dogs, I may handle more turtles in a day than another person, relying on his or her vision, with in a month. As of the summer of 2005, I had 402 turtles numbered and mapped in one study area. Areas of East Tennessee appear to support densities of several turtles per acre, perhaps approximating pre-industrial populations. In all North Carolina study areas, I am seeing very different population dynamics. In comparison to all three Tennessee study areas, North Carolina appears to have a scarcity of young turtles, a gender imbalance, and far fewer turtles per acre. North Carolina's population is in decline, and the turtle dogs have proven it as no other researchers could have. The eastern box turtle is a much loved species, and is the official state reptile of both states. The loss of a well diversified gene pool in an area which formerly had a good population of turtles, makes a strong statement of environmental degradation.
As I write these words in early April, I am seeing avian migrants arriving daily. The earliest ones, the male blue-grey gnatcatchers, pine warblers, red-winged blackbirds and brown thrashers, are already staking out territories as their complex vocalizations advertise, "I'm looking for a wife". Any morning now, one of my boys will trot proudly up to me with the first turtle of the season. I'm betting it will be number one, two or three since these individuals all live within 100 feet of the house. Yet, I'm constantly surprised by the behavior of these ultimate survivors.
© John Rucker