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PENNY PATROL: New canine unit helps conservation agents detect wildlife violations

By Barry Dalton
bdalton@vandalialeader.com

“Agent Penny,” a small black Labrador retriever, is assigned to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s northeast region. She is more likely to lick your child’s hand than rip a fleeing poacher’s pants. But apprehending suspects isn’t really her job. Penny has a partner and handler–Corporal Don Clever–to cover her flank.

Penny has been specially trained to use her highly sensitive snout to sleuth out poached ducks, turkeys, deer and even fish. She is part of a new MDC canine unit that started patrolling Missouri’s public fields and forests during the first week of June. 

“She is trained on human tracking, so tracking either a lost child or a hunter who has got lost , or somebody who has run from law enforcement,” Corporal Clever said. “She’s also trained on article detection, anything with human odor on it such as a gun or cell phone, keys, shell casing, anything that would help us in spotting evidence.”

Five dogs and their conservation agent-handlers are stationed in specific regions throughout the state, but they are available anywhere they are needed. 

“I’m still a field agent assigned to Marion County,” said Clever, who’s been stationed in Marion for nine years and applied to be a handler last year. “We’re statewide officers. I love dogs and I’ve always liked working with dogs.”

The canine handlers received their dogs last fall and began a rigorous nine-week training program with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in February. They graduated on May 14. Three Labrador retrievers, including Penny, and two German shorthaired pointers were chosen for the program.

The other canine handling conservation agents are: Caleb Pryor and Zara, a Pointer, in the northwest region; Susan Swem and Astro, a Lab, in the southwest region; Justin Pyburn and Korra, a Lab, in the Kansas City region; and Alan Lamb and Tex, a Pointer, in the southeast region.

“She has to be trained consistently throughout the rest of her life,” Corporal Clever noted. “Just as an officer of the law has continuing training, so do our dogs.”

Their conservation-related work includes tracking, evidence recovery, search and rescue and wildlife detection. Another rapidly growing use of canines is in the field of endangered and invasive species.

“Like your drug dogs that sniff cars and find narcotics, she does the same thing except she’s going to find wildlife,” Clever explained. “If you have a duck hidden in your car or deer parts or something like that, she finds those things. We’re game wardens. Not that we don’t do drug enforcement, but our primary mission is wildlife.”

The unit is also available for public outreach programs at fairs and schools. 

“Canine programs have been successfully used by conservation agencies since the late 1970s,” said MDC Protection Deputy Chief Dean Harre. “The implementation of this canine program will help continue MDC’s mission of protecting Missouri’s fish, forest and wildlife resources.”

Clever sees his work as essential to that mission.

“Fair chase is the big thing. We want ethical hunting,” Clever said. “Also safety–shooting from the roadway is not safe, or shooting after dark. Overhunting and overfishing–there are reasons for limits on certain wildlife to maintain healthy populations.”