K9's 4 Conservation: Dogs Work to Save Sea Turtles
If you haven’t started a nonprofit to save an endangered species for your girlfriend’s birthday, then you’re a little behind Christian Fritz, dog enthusiast and criminal justice PhD candidate at Texas State University.
Christian’s girlfriend is a big fan of sea turtles, and he was trying to figure out what to do for her birthday last year. He thought about taking her to Seaworld, but they did not have any sea turtles. Then, he remembered that there was an aquarium with sea turtles in Corpus Christi.
While googling the aquarium, he started to see articles pop up about the efforts to protect highly endangered turtle species on the Texan coast along the Gulf of Mexico. Sea turtles are in big trouble--they’ve long been slaughtered for eggs, meat, skin, and shells, and like many oceanic creatures, are suffering from environmental degradation and pollution. Corpus Christi’s waters are home to the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world, the Kemp’s ridley turtle. In 1986 there were only about 1,000 left in the world. The precious eggs are vulnerable to coyotes, racoons, hogs, fire ants, storm surges, and human activity.
Conservation groups in Corpus Christi are attempting to save these turtles by patrolling beaches for turtles’ nests, and taking the eggs so they can hatch in safety, away from predators and environmental hazards. Once the babies hatch, they are released into the ocean.
As Christian fell down the rabbit hole of turtles, he saw videos of scientists search for the nests. Because the tiny flipper prints in the sand often get blown away, it can be incredibly difficult and painstaking to try and find each and every egg underneath a layer of sand.
“They have to take a guess at where the nest is,” Christian told us, “and start probing with sticks. They’re looking at a half-acre area, but they have to stop and probe every six inches.”
Once, scientists thought a turtle had laid a nest, and spent three days looking for it, covering the beach with a fine-tooth comb. They never found a nest, and by the time they were done, the beach looked like a bomb crater.
“There has to be a better way,” Christian thought as he read these articles.
In fact, he knew there was a better way. “It looks like they need dogs,” he thought, as an idea formed.
Just as Christian’s girlfriend loves sea turtles, Christian loves dogs. A military veteran, he is now a Search and Rescue volunteer, and he has a human remains detection dog that helps with recoveries.
He knew that if trained, his dog could track down a sea turtle nest in a fraction of the time it takes an entire team of humans. He immediately emailed the generic address he found for a researcher in Corpus Christi, asking if they would ever deploy dogs.
The lead researcher, Dr. Donna Shaver, emailed him back to say they’d had a dog, but he had passed away and it was too expensive to get another--it would cost up to $50,000. Undeterred, Christian emailed back. “What if I got it funded?” he asked. “What if I start a nonprofit so it’s free for you? I’ll just show up with a trained dog and help you find nests. All you have to do is say yes.”
Dr. Shaver was reluctant. But Christian knew this could work. He just needed to meet her in person. “When do you have some time to meet?” he asked. She said she had some time that day, and later that week--but Christian had heard all he needed to hear. “I’ll be there in four hours,” he replied.
He dropped his girlfriend at work, drove three hours to Corpus Christi, and spent an hour and a half speaking with Dr. Shaver. They hit it off, and Christian got a tour of the beach and the facilities.
After that, his fate was set. He started his nonprofit, K9s 4 Conservation, and began to train two turtle nest detectors dogs. Saul is Christian’s 4 year old German Shepard with experience with search and rescue, and Dasha is a 4 year old Belgian Malinois who works hard, but is too sweet for police work. But saving turtles? He’d found the perfect job for her.
The dogs are being trained now so they’ll be ready for the next nesting season.
It’s been tricky to train them--because the turtles are endangered, it’s illegal to possess anything from them, including egg shards or their remains. So Christian had to get creative. He discovered that when turtles lay their eggs, they leave a fluid at the bottom of the nest. Christian “scoops the goop out,” and teaches the dogs to track that scent.
These dogs could be game changers in Texas--and perhaps, one day, beyond. The stretch of beach they’re starting with is small, but Christian hopes the dogs will also be able to cover more area soon, including places like the private San Jose island. If they start to expand their acreage, they’ll need more help, more dogs. Because the island is privately owned, the conservation team is only allowed to go out twice a week. That means that by the time they get there, all tracks may be completely gone, making it virtually impossible to track nests. Dogs would be able to track far more efficiently, but they would potentially need to cover hundreds of miles.
So, as Christian completes a PhD program and attempts to fundraise for the nonprofit, he’s also starting to think about finding more dogs. K9s 4 Conservation may be able to find unlikely heroes--for some of the smaller stretches of beach, Christian wants to find a dog that is smaller, a little less athletic, who can focus on a “narrow problem.” But any kind of dog would do, as long as he or she has a “strong play and hunt instinct.”
One day, he hopes to rescue handicapped dogs from shelters and bring them onto the team. “A dog that has a ton of drive but is deaf would be great, he could even be blind and still search.”
This ragtag crew of unlikely heroes is coming together to save one of the most threatened species on the planet, and they’re doing it in hot, prickly Texas. Christian has his dogs wear Rex Specs to protect them from the heat, sand, snakes, and cacti of the Gulf Coast.
This idea fell right into Christian’s lap, and it feels preordained in a way. “I missed the sense of mission and purpose from the military, doing something that’s beyond personal mission,” he says. “I’m not on this earth to sell things so that a CEO can buy his new home and I can afford to pay the bills for another month.” Dogs, saving baby sea turtles, working with a passionate team of conservationists--that might be why he’s here. It’s not easy--it will cost thousands of dollars to train each dog up--but it’s worth it.
In the 1940s, it was documented that in one day, 40,000 sea turtles nested on the Mexican Beach of Rancho Nuevo. In 1986, there were less than 800 in the whole year. The more eggs that can be saved, the more likely it is that sea turtles will one day once again have a thriving, healthy population. That’s what Christian, Saul, and Dasha hope for, at least.