While working as a wildlife ecologist in Colorado, Pete Coppolillo crossed paths with Working Dogs for Conservation and was so taken with the company and its mission that he joined the team, eventually becoming the Executive Director in 2012. Here, Pete gives us an inside look at the pioneering organization, which rescues shelter dogs and trains them to protect native species and stop poachers.
What does Working Dogs for Conservation do? We train dogs to assist with ending wildlife crime and anti-poaching and to stop invasive species. We’re very proud that we rescue the dogs that we train. A lot of these dogs are incredibly talented but they’re not easy dogs to have in a household. As such, our dogs tend to be the ones that shelters have a hard time placing in homes, so it really works well for the dogs, many of whom would be put down if we didn’t find them.
How did you get involved with Working Dogs for Conservation?
The organization was founded by four female biologists who were looking for less invasive ways to work with wildlife that were also less dangerous for the species and people involved. I first crossed paths with Working Dogs for Conservation on some projects in Africa and Yellowstone National Park, while I was working at the Wildlife Conservation Society. I got really enthusiastic about all the possibilities for WDC and had lots of ideas for how they could expand, so I joined the board and then moved into a full-time role as the Executive Director.
What’s one of the most interesting projects you’re working on right now? Protecting the endemic birds on the Falkland Islands, which have some of the most prolific seabird colonies in the world and just spent nearly $10 million dollars to eradicate rats from the islands. We’ve brought some of our dogs there to inspect every boat that arrives there to ensure that the rodents do not come back. Most of the boats are research vessels, tourism ships and fishing boats, the latter of which are the biggest problem because they are the least clean and are not as aware of biosecurity.
Where does Working Dogs for Conservation make the biggest impact? We are working to stop wildlife crime in eight countries, but we also train other organizations. We pride ourselves on being an open source; we share our practices, because we think it’s more important to teach others how to do this work than to be secretive and keep it to ourselves. Right now, we’re training more than 200 different dog handlers in 15 other countries.
We started working in Zambia in 2009 and have since expanded across the continent. Our dogs have put hundreds of poachers out of business, which they do in two different ways. They help us detect and arrest poachers, but they also help us seize guns. When you seize one gun, you’re actually stopping closer to seven poachers, because they cannot share or resell the firearm. This also allows us to intervene before an animal is killed; it’s gratifying to find and protect elephant and rhino tusks, but it’s even more special to stop poachers before they can harm animals.
What projects would you like to get involved in next? There’s a really beautiful bird called the hooded grebe that lives in the high Andes in Argentina. There are only about 250 of them left in the world, and this number is dwindling, because mink prey on them. We have dogs who are trained to detect mink and we’ve been trying to cobble together the money to get our team down there. We’ve also started working in Chile with Panthera, a big cat conservation organization, and we’d like to establish a full-time dog team in the southern cone that could work with grebes, pumas, jaguar and invasive species issues.
How can people get involved with Working Dogs for Conservation? It’s not usually possible to meet the dogs because they are working animals. The best way to help our cause is through donations. There are so many projects we want to get involved with and animals we want to help, and donations really allow us to expand our reach and capacity.
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