Inspectors dogged about wildlife smugglers

Fish & Wildlife Service has canine help in fight against illegal wildlife trafficking at O'Hare and Midway

Bonnie Lane in Elk Grove Village seems an unlikely place to be sniffing around for elephant tusks and black rhinoceros horns brought into the United States from Africa, but Lancer the G-dog "nose" his way around cargo facilities.

Lancer, a 4-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, is newly assigned to the Chicago area after recently graduating from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's first training class of wildlife detector dogs.

While canines have been used for years to help authorities find fugitives and missing children, track down smuggled narcotics and identify explosives at airports and train stations, Lancer's mission is to intercept illegally trafficked wildlife and animal parts from protected or endangered species.

The value of the illegal wildlife trade worldwide is at least $5 billion a year and potentially exceeds $20 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Lancer represents the newest weapon at a key entry point to the U.S. — O'Hare International Airport — in the war against the growing international trade in threatened animal parts, officials said.

The smuggled goods range from exotic live reptiles, birds and fish from threatened populations to trophies of lions, leopards, elephants and other beasts illegally shot by hunters to smaller items, including tiger parts and rhino horns, that are destined for the black market for purported medicinal or other purposes, officials said.

O'Hare serves as a waypoint for smuggling rings operating in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world, authorities said. Law enforcement agencies place a strong emphasis on monitoring the freight warehouses near the airport that work with air carriers to transfer millions of tons of international cargo each year.

The beat patrolled by Amanda Dickson, a Fish & Wildlife inspector who is Lancer's handler, includes O'Hare and Midway Airport as well as air cargo and U.S. Postal Service facilities. Four other inspectors, who are not paired with wildlife detector dogs, also cover the territory.

Dickson and Lancer made the rounds last week at a customs broker warehouse in Elk Grove Village, near O'Hare. The company, Coppersmith Inc., at 760 Bonnie Lane, specializes in handling game trophies and other legally imported animal parts for hunters and importers.

Dickson determined that the shipment she examined was legal and properly documented with the required paperwork.

On other inspections in the Chicago area during his short time on duty so far, Lancer has alerted authorities to scents that led to ongoing investigations against alleged smugglers, Dickson said.

Lancer is trained on five scents — elephant ivory, rhino horn, sea horse, sea turtle and python. Officials said wildlife detector dogs can be trained to identify additional scents.

"The dogs are trained to ignore dirty laundry, food and other things in people's luggage," said Dickson, 30, of Minnesota, who has been working for the Fish & Wildlife Service for 2½ years.

Wildlife detector dogs also are not thrown off the scent by smugglers' efforts to camouflage the smell of prohibited items by wrapping them in aluminum foil or trying such ploys as dousing the shipping crates with deodorant, toothpaste or cleaning chemicals, she said.

Dickson and Lancer are certified as a team and they likely will stay together for the dog's five- to seven-year working career, she said. Lancer was trained at a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Newnan, Ga., near Atlanta. Starting in January, Dickson and Lancer went through a 13-week training course together.

Dickson is still working on building up Lancer's endurance to work. The key is to make it not seem like work to the dog.

"I have to keep it fun and exciting for him," Dickson said. "You've got to keep it a game for the dog so he doesn't lose motivation."

Dickson said she has established a strong connection with Lancer and "we can read each other's excitement level. You learn to pick up cues, which helps him to lock in on a scent that he has picked up but hasn't quite figured out where it is coming from."

The visit to the Coppersmith warehouse was more than a good practice session for Lancer. In addition to conducting routine and random inspections to search for illegal shipments, the Fish & Wildlife Service inspects declared shipments of animal parts to ensure that the items actually are what they are described to be and that the paperwork is legitimate, officials said.

Even with what appears to be a legal shipment, prohibited animal parts have been seized from crates, officials said. Coppersmith once received a legal shipment of crocodile to process, but included inside the crate was a shell from an endangered sea turtle, said Lisa Gingerich, branch manager at the company. The shell was turned over to authorities, she said.