Scat-finding Dogs Help AUNE Student Study Bay Area Wild Cats

Kimberly Craighead, a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England (AUNE), is launching a project to evaluate stress levels in pumas and bobcats in California’s Bay Area. There, pumas occasionally encounter humans, due to their proximity to neighborhoods and parks, and are sometimes killed out of human fear or injury to pets and domestic animals.

Kimberly plans to use scat-detector dogs to collect puma scat, or feces, in remote locations. The University of Washington’s (UW) Center for Conservation Biology will analyze the samples for cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress. She hopes to learn whether cortisol levels correlate with environmental factors such as human disturbances and landscape change that are known to increase stress on wild animals.

Scat analysis is a relatively new, non-invasive method of obtaining data, not only on stress levels in the wild animals, but also on their diets, home ranges, and movements. One advantage is that it doesn’t disturb the wild animal as does trapping and collaring.

Conservation Canines Go to Work
To obtain scat samples, Kimberly plans to work with the Conservation Canines program at the UW Center for Conservation Biology. Conservation canines are dogs rescued from animal shelters, then trained on how to locate the scat of a particular species found in remote areas, using methods like those used to train dogs for detecting drugs. To date, dogs have been trained to find scat from several other species such as grizzly bear, kit fox, and even orcas.

Wildlife conservation runs in her blood, Kimberly says. On her mother’s side, she’s related to the well-known wildlife conservationist brothers Frank and John Craighead, whose groundbreaking study of grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains in the 1960s helped secure legal protection for the bears. The Craigheads used technology that was innovative at the time—radio collars and transmitters.

Kimberly’s goal is very clear. “Today we are at the dawn of witnessing the sixth mass extinction caused by unsustainable human practices and neglect,” she said. “I must pursue my PhD because the wild cats need me.”