L.A. Unleashed

All things animal in Southern
California and beyond

Category: Animals Helping People

Sniffer rats prepare to deploy in Colombian minefields


Narcotics officers in Colombia are preparing to launch a new program in which specially trained rats are deployed to alert human handlers to the presence of land mines, Times Bogota bureau chief Chris Kraul reports.

Hundreds of thousands of mines have been buried in remote areas of Colombia by leftist rebels and drug traffickers; nearly 700 people died from mine-related injuries in the country last year.

The program is modeled on a similar one in Africa that utilizes the sniffing skills of African giant pouched rats that are native to the area rather than the more familiar white rats used in Colombia.

Rats have several advantages over sniffer dogs in the field of mine detection: They weigh significantly less than their canine counterparts (a major benefit because it means they can step on a land mine without detonating it), their upkeep is cheaper and, since rats aren't as social as dogs, they are less likely to be distracted by other animals in the field.

"The more I work with rats, the more I am amazed at what they can do," Luisa Fernanda Mendez, a civilian behavioral veterinarian in charge of the project, told The Times.


-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Police officer Henry Munoz rewards a rat being trained to sniff out explosives. Credit: Colombian National Police

From racehorse to pet: The story of Spot the Diplomat

SpotTheDiplomat For some, a racehorse's worth can be summed up in a dollar amount -- prize winnings, successful bets, even stud fees. But Times sports columnist Bill Dwyre recently told the story of a family who views their own racehorse in very different -- and much better, if you ask us -- terms.

This horse, a thoroughbred with the unusual name Spot the Diplomat (it reminds one of Santa's Little Helper from "The Simpsons," doesn't it?), wasn't a big winner on the racetrack. His odds were respectable enough -- total winnings: $342,231 -- but he really came into his own after a sesamoid fracture permanently ended his racing career.

Spot was sent to rehabilitate at a farm in Riverside County. Around the same time, Grant and Greta Hays of L.A. began considering a change of scene to better suit the needs of their two young sons, Jack and Dylan, both of whom are severely autistic. A visit to a Texas horse ranch last year made a big impression on the boys. "Jack speaks no words," Grant Hays explained, "but we got off the plane and he turned to me and said, 'Texas.' I was stunned."

So the family made plans to move to Texas and looked into adding a horse to their family. As it happened, Grant knew Bob Ike, a partner in Summit Racing, the company that owned Spot. Spot moved to Texas, and the rest is history. "In Los Angeles, we were a stressed-out family," Hays told Dwyre. "Now, we are all happy. The boys are constantly with Spot. They play around him, ride him, sometimes sit on him for two or three hours at a time."

Learn more about Spot's new career as a much-loved pet in Dwyre's recent column.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Dylan Hays sits atop Spot the Diplomat. Photo courtesy of the Hays family

At work or play?


Working dogs, with their keen sense of smell, have long helped authorities sniff out narcotics in airports, bombs in war zones, fugitives and lost humans, both dead and alive. Now their noses are being put to use in the wild -- helping wildlife biologists find cryptic animals, hidden animal scat and rare plants that so easily elude human detection.

Read more about it in a story in Saturday's Los Angeles Times, which follows one detection dog that shows puny-nosed humans how to sniff out grizzly bear scat in western Montana.

It's a rare dog that makes the cut in this line of work. Trainers look for those with intense focus and high play drive. Theirs is the kind of temperament that can drive casual pet owners nuts, but will power these pooches to race up and down mountains and across vast landscapes in search of their target -- all so they can get their ball or other reward.

Most come from the working dog breeds -- the shepherds herders, etc. But from the dog's perspective, are they working or playing? The line blurs.

Italian school teaches dogs to become lifeguards

PTSD not just for humans anymore? German shepherd that served in Iraq suffered trauma

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo: Pepin, a Belgian Malinois, loves to play tug with Megan Parker, director of Working Dogs for Conservation. He got his reward for following his nose to locate grizzly bear scat in Montana's Blackfoot Valley. Credit: Kenneth R. Weiss/Los Angeles Times

Review finds that bomb-sniffing dogs in Afghanistan and Iraq may not be up to snuff

BombSniffer The State Department's inspector general said Friday that bomb-sniffing dogs in Afghanistan and Iraq aren't being tested properly and may not be able to effectively detect explosives.

The inspector general's review found that the companies hired to supply and train the animals weren't testing them for all of the scents of the most commonly encountered explosives, increasing the chance of a dog missing a bomb in a vehicle or luggage. That puts U.S. diplomats at risk, the inspector general said.

The companies -- U.S. Training Center in Moyock, N.C., a business unit of the company formerly known as Blackwater, and RONCO Consulting Corp. in Washington -- also used expired or potentially contaminated materials for the scent tests, the inspector general's report said.

Susan Pitcher, a spokeswoman for Wackenhut Services, RONCO's parent company, called the inspector general's review "inaccurate." She said a canine expert engaged by the State Department to verify the detection capabilities of the dogs concluded that they complied with the required standards.

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For Rufus, winningest bull terrier in breed history, life as a retired show dog is still busy

Rufus the bull terrier

Rufus is the most decorated bull terrier in the history of the breed, a celebrity ambassador and one of the busiest therapy dogs in the country.

With his enduring popularity and hectic schedule of public appearances at age 10 (that's 70 in dog years), he's like the Betty White of the dog world, although at 88, she still has a few years on Rufus.

Rufus is a colored bull terrier with a head like an egg and a body like a torpedo, explained David Frei, director of communications for the Westminster Kennel Club.

Owner Barbara Bishop of Holmdel, N.J., rejects words like ugly and weird, settling on different to describe Rufus. His sad look, funny eyes and big nose draw people in, she said.

"He's approachable. A lot of people might be afraid to approach Brad Pitt, but they would come to Adam Sandler. Anyone can pet Rufus. I think that's part of his charisma. You don't have to worry about touching Rufus because he's a wash-and-wear kind of guy. You can just love him," she said.

At hospitals or cancer centers like the Ronald McDonald House in New York City, "people think he's stuffed. He just lays there buried under 20 kids. People can't believe he is so used to it," Bishop said.

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Italian school teaches dogs to become lifeguards


CIVITAVECCHIA, Italy — They leap from helicopters or speeding boats, bringing aid to swimmers who get into trouble off Italy's popular beaches.

For these canine lifeguards, the doggie paddle does just fine.

Hundreds of specially trained dogs from Italy's corps of canine lifeguards are deployed each summer to help swimmers in need of rescue.

These "lifedogs" wear a harness or tow a buoy that victims can grab, or a raft they can sit on to be towed back to shore, and unlike their human counterparts, they can easily jump from helicopters and speeding boats to reach swimmers in trouble.

With millions flocking to Italy's crowded beaches each summer, the Italian Coast Guard says it rescues about 3,000 people every year -- and their canine helpers are credited with saving several lives.

It takes three years for the canines to reach expert rescue status, and currently 300 dogs are fully trained for duty, said Roberto Gasbarri, who coordinates the Italian School of Canine Lifeguards program at a center outside of Rome in the seaside town of Civitavecchia.

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PTSD not just for humans anymore? German shepherd that served in Iraq suffered trauma

Gina the German shepherd

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Gina was a playful 2-year-old German shepherd when she went to Iraq as a highly trained bomb-sniffing dog with the military, conducting door-to-door searches and witnessing all sorts of noisy explosions.

She returned home to Colorado cowering and fearful. When her handlers tried to take her into a building, she would stiffen her legs and resist. Once inside, she would tuck her tail beneath her body and slink along the floor. She would hide under furniture or in a corner to avoid people.

A military veterinarian diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder -- a condition that some experts say can afflict dogs just like it does humans.

"She showed all the symptoms and she had all the signs," said Master Sgt. Eric Haynes, the kennel master at Peterson Air Force Base. "She was terrified of everybody and it was obviously a condition that led her down that road."

A year later, Gina is on the mend. Frequent walks among friendly people and a gradual reintroduction to the noises of military life have begun to overcome her fears, Haynes said.

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U.S. Department of Homeland Security seeks to expand its canine workforce

Homeland Security Dog

If you're a young adult with a good sense of smell and a tough attitude, possess an "alert, active, outgoing, confident" attitude and are "extremely tolerant of people," the U.S. Department of Homeland Security just might have a job for you.

Oh, and you should be a dog -- preferably a German shepherd, Labrador retriever, golden retriever, Belgian malinois, Dutch shepherd "or other working, herding or sporting breeds with prior approval."

The department, which uses dogs for border security, search-and-rescue work, drug detection and bomb-sniffing, currently staffs about 2,000 animals. It's looking to expand its canine workforce by about 3,000 over the next five years and recently sent a bid solicitation to a number of small-scale dog breeders around the country.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said this year that the department is "increasing the number of dogs as fast as we can," noting dogs' success at finding narcotics, large quantities of cash and weaponry. Clark Larson, who runs the customs and border agency's canine program, has said that dogs have saved "literally thousands of lives a year" by finding illegal immigrants who have wandered into areas with insufficient food and water.

Learn more about the Department of Homeland Security's search for a few (thousand) good dogs in reporter Ken Dilanian's recent story in The Times.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A detection dog at work. Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Goats have returned to Angel's Knoll


Nothing says summer in downtown Los Angeles better than goats. 

Indeed, goats! What is slowly becoming a summertime tradition on the hill right next to Angel's Flight funicular (known as Angel's Knoll, made famous in "500 Days of Summer"), is the use of four-legged friends to do away with the weeds that spring up each year.

In 2008, instead of using pollution-spewing lawnmowers, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, which owns the knoll near Broadway and 4th Street, shipped in 100 goats to eat the weeds and other delicious plant life.

This week downtown residents, employees and several local blogs were pleasantly surprised to notice their return.

It only takes about a week for the goats to clear the knoll, and at no extra charge they fertilize the land naturally. After the animals have done their job they are shipped back down to their home in San Diego and quietly wait for more work as part of an animal-friendly company called Environmental Land Management.

In 2008 Times journalist Bob Pool reported that the CRA paid about $3,000 for the goat rental, which is more than half of what it would have cost to have humans mow the weeds with machines. 

After the jump, view more photos of the goats.

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June in animal news: Five questions with American Humane's Amy McCullough

We recently introduced a new feature here at Unleashed: Five questions with prominent members of the animal protection community. Here, Amy McCullough, an expert in animal-assisted therapy and the human-animal bond with the American Humane Assn., shares her take on the most important news stories for animals in June and what American Humane will be doing on behalf of animals in July. McCullough's responses represent her own views and not necessarily ours.

AmyAndBailey Unleashed: What do you view as the most important development in animal news to happen in June?

Amy McCullough: June has proved that animals, both domesticated and wild, are helpless victims in all kinds of disasters, whether they be natural or man-made. From catastrophic environmental disasters like the Gulf oil spill, to wildfires in Arizona that threaten animal shelters, to heartbreaking situations like the one we recently responded to in Pennsylvania, where nearly 400 cats were being housed in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, American Humane stands ready to help protect, rescue and care for these vulnerable members of our society.

Unleashed: What were American Humane's biggest projects in June?

McCullough: American Humane's volunteer animal-assisted therapy teams completed a successful pilot program that provided animal-assisted therapy to military veterans experiencing homelessness. We also launched our biggest effort to date for Adopt-A-Cat Month®, to encourage cat adoption during "kitten season" and help reduce the tragedy of pet overpopulation.

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