Kimberly Leach Burge says Sweet Briar stoked her love for “all things reptiles and amphibians,” but lately she’s developed a fondness for Boykin spaniels, too.
The 2000 biology graduate is a wildlife education specialist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. The spaniels have become an important asset to her work with a statewide project studying the size and health of box turtle populations.
Boykins are bird dogs, known in hunting circles as “soft-mouthed” for their ability to retrieve game without damaging it. According to an article, “Shell Games,” in the November/December issue of American Kennel Club Family Dog magazine, they’re also excellent turtle trackers. Particularly in hot, humid or rainy conditions, a spaniel can follow scent trails into a thicket and emerge moments later, a completely unharmed prize gently clasped in its jaws.
Burge spent last summer living and working with several Boykins loaned to her by John Rucker, who was featured in the AKC magazine story. Several times a week, she took the dogs through sections of the study area in N.C. State University’s Lake Raleigh Woods to hunt turtles. Often groups of children and their parents accompanied them as part of an education outreach series.
Burge coordinated the trips and shepherded the dogs while another educator served as the “people director/herder,” she said.
“I scheduled many opportunities for groups to go in the woods with us because I wanted to raise box turtle awareness and have the opportunity to discuss the difficulties urban wildlife populations face on a daily basis,” Burge said.
Box turtles make great ambassadors to introduce people to wild animals, and the opportunity to see the dogs in action draws them into the woods, where Burge has discovered not everyone is at ease.
“Watching the dogs work, with the prospect of being able to find and touch a turtle, distracted people from some of the fears many seem to have of walking through the woods,” she said. “Thoughts of biting insects, snakes and other perils go by the wayside!
During the summer the spaniels found 47 unknown turtles and 13 previously tagged individuals in the Woods. Rucker and his dogs, which he began breeding as turtle trackers a few years ago, also travel to other states to lend their services to researchers.
Burge has been working with Rucker since 2008, so when her charges arrived this summer she knew what to do with them. Older, more experienced dogs need little “casting” to know where to search, simply following the direction she walks, she said.
The younger ones pose a bigger challenge, but also rewards. The “thrill of the find” is always the best part, Burge said.
“The most exciting finds were when a puppy would find and bring me his or her first turtle. Boykins are such characters, they each had their own dramatic way of showing off how proud they were of themselves. One puppy, Bonnie, found a turtle in a very thick patch of blackberries up a steep hill. She came out of the thicket dancing around but without a turtle. I sent her back into the thicket and asked her to ‘bring turtle!’
“She happily went back into the thicket and rushed out, sliding down the hill on her belly with all four legs splayed in front and back of her, and as she passed by me she spit the turtle out at my feet and continued sliding to the bottom of the hill on her belly. She was one proud puppy — and I was one proud trainer.”