From Poop to Policy Change: Eba the Superpup
Meet Eba, the Whale Dog Working to Protect Orcas
Eba, a pitbull-corgi-terrier-mix rescue dog, might have a dog’s dream job: she gets to find and sniff poop (though no rolling in it). More specifically, Eba stands at the bow of a research boat smelling for whale scat and helps her owner and killer whale research biologist, Dr. Deborah Giles, collect orca and humpback whale poop for research.
As a scent detection dog, Eba is trained to smell out both orca and humpback whale scat. And her payment? A game of tug-of-war with her favorite toy, an old piece of rope.
While the job may be fun and games for Eba, she’s contributing to life-saving work to help protect endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The feces the team collects tells a detailed story of the killer whales’ lives including pregnancy, stress, nutrition, and toxicants. From there, Wild Orca — the non-profit organization managing the program — can translate that research and information into meaningful policy and action to make a difference for the Southern Resident killer whale population.
Eba the Whale Dog
Eba started out as a rambunctious escape artist in Sacramento, California. She was originally dropped off at the Sacramento animal shelter in 2015 as a 3 ½-pound puppy. She had escaped her first foster home when Dr. Giles’ sister found her and took her home. However, after two years, her sister’s first dog didn’t appreciate sharing the home with Eba, so Eba needed a new living situation.
At the time, Dr. Giles was already living on San Juan Island for work and agreed to take Eba to re-home her on the island in 2017. “But we spent her first three months here with it being me and Eba and I totally fell in love,” says Dr. Giles. “I knew at that point I was not going to be re-homing her.”
Eba was Dr. Giles’ loving and energetic companion dog until 2019 when her team needed a new scent dog. Because of Eba’s obsession with playing, they decided to try her out for scent work and she was a natural. “Eba took to it really well,” says Dr. Giles. “She had the instinct to search and then play.”
After four full days of land training and one day scent training on the boat, on July 6, 2019, Eba went out on the boat with the team for the second time and that’s when she found her first sample all on her own. “She’s been our only scent dog since 2019.”
The Importance of Whale Poop and How Eba Finds It
Whale scat can tell researchers a lot about the whales: identification of which whale pooped it out and various different hormone indicators that offer insight on stress levels, nutrition, and pregnancy. With Eba’s help, Dr. Giles’ team can locate these scat samples without getting too close to the whales and adding more stress.
When the team goes out on the boat to follow a reported orca sighting, they try to stay about 400 to 500 meters behind and to the side of the whales. “We don’t want to impact their ability to echolocate so we don’t like being directly behind them or directly in front of them but rather off to the side and behind,” explains Dr. Giles.
Without a dog’s scent-tracking superpower, Giles says finding the poops from this distance “would be like looking for a needle in a haystack when the entire haystack is moving and so is the needle.” Instead, Eba can smell killer whale poop up to one nautical mile away and can signal to the team which way to go.
“When she gets a scent, her body changes,” says Dr. Giles. “She gets very stiff. She gets very intense. She'll start whining, licking her lips, or licking the air. She doesn’t bark very much, but when she does, that tells me she’s very close and very very frustrated because we’re not getting her there fast enough”
Once the team finds and collects the scat, they let Eba smell it and then she gets play time while the others process the sample with the equipment they have on the boat. “After, she’ll get a rest break. She’ll have some water then go in the kennel we have for her at the back of the boat and just lay down,” says Dr. Giles.
That is, unless she starts smelling another sample.
Then it’s back to the bow of the boat and the team is full speed ahead following Eba’s nose. The team calls days when they get more than one sample a “pooping day.” Sometimes, they can get anywhere from two to four or more samples in a day. Other days, they won’t get any. “That’s correlated with them not eating,” says Dr. Giles. “And that’s very unfortunate.”
While on the boat, Eba sports her doggy life jacket and Rex Specs to keep her safe from the elements. The life jacket for any possible water dangers and the Rex Specs to protect her eyes from the especially harsh glare off the water. “Oftentimes she’s looking right over the bow of the boat into that glare coming off the water, so it’s a part of her safety uniform,” says Dr. Giles.
From Poop to Policy Change
The unique part of Wild Orca is they don’t just conduct research about the Southern Resident killer whale population — they also ensure people in power are able to access that research. The organization works with policymakers, stakeholders, organizations, and management agencies to ensure the research on orcas helps direct conservation and environmental policies. This way, those policies have the best possible chance of protecting this endangered species.
One example Dr. Giles gives is emphasizing the need to focus on food scarcity. “Some of our findings show that when there’s not enough food to eat, we have high pregnancy failure rates,” says Dr. Giles. “So before the baby is born viable, a female is essentially miscarrying that baby because she’s not getting enough to eat.” With this in mind, the organization has directed a large portion of its advocacy work to calling fisheries managers to restrict overfishing and reduce salmon bycatch (salmon accidentally caught in other fisheries). Through this and other measures, Wild Orca is taking direct action to protect and restore Chinook salmon stocks and in turn, protect the ecosystems that fish, whales, and humans all need to survive.