TUCSON, ARIZ.—It’s hard to imagine Mayke, a sweet-tempered Belgian shepherd, in the vocation for which she was bred. Driving by a border patrol checkpoint on a highway connecting Tucson to Mexico, she betrayed no reaction.
If the drug-and-bomb-sniffing flunkout was a loss for Homeland Security, she has been a major gain for Arizona conservation biology. Mayke appears to be highly motivated by her new role: detecting jaguar scat.
Earlier in the day, as Chris Bugbee, Mayke’s handler, turned onto a rutted road that rose into the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains, Mayke began to pant. “When she starts breathing like that, it’s because she recognizes where we’re going,” Bugbee said. Soon they were scrambling down into a canyon studded with agaves, prickly pear cacti and death-white sycamores.
The pebbled creek bed was bone dry. Bugbee and Mayke bolted ahead as Aletris Neils, Bugbee’s partner in wildcat conservation and in life, scanned the ground for animal tracks. She had already spotted a live bobcat perched on the hill above the road, and she quickly identified prints from a mountain lion and a coati, a hot-climate cousin of the raccoon.
At a boulder sheltered by a low tree, Bugbee stopped pick up a motion-triggered infrared remote camera. “It’s like Christmas morning,” Neils said, watching him click through the video. The camera revealed footage of a fox, a coyote and a mountain lion. Several cows and some hunters wandered into its view.
But there was no sign of Bugbee and Neils’ primary research subject: America’s only known wild jaguar, El Jefe. Neils was not surprised. “He’s a prime reproductive male,” she said. “He should start venturing out and trying to find females.”
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