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USDA dogs sniff out snakes

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Katrina M. Brisbin
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
With the utilization of 17 active detector dog teams, 3,400 traps and toxicants, the U.S. Department of Agriculture captured approximately 8,300 brown tree snakes here on Guam last year.

According to USDA research, the brown tree snake was accidentally introduced to Guam in the late 1940s or early 1950s, probably from the Solomon Islands. Native to northeastern Australia, eastern Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, the brown tree snake has significantly damaged the ecology and impacted the economy of the island.

Helping capture these snakes are the Brown Tree Snake Detector Dogs, who significantly help prevent the spread of the brown tree snakes. 

"Being natural born hunters, the dogs actually enjoy working and looking for the snakes," said Tony Thompson, USDA dog handler.

All Jack Russell terriers that are acquired for the program come from various rescue shelters in the Atlanta, Ga., area near the National Detector Dog Training Center. The dogs are selected based on temperament, willingness to work, and prey drive.
After selection, the dogs are trained by a certified USDA trainer and introduced to their handler. The handler and dog will work together for the remainder of their time in the program.

"The brown tree snake is a very effective predator and has had a catastrophic effect on the avian population on Guam with 10 of 12 species gone," said Marc Hall, USDA canine program manager. "Scientists are still studying the cascade effects of the loss of bird species but it is safe to say that the impact is significant to island ecology in the region. All islands in the Pacific region are at risk should the snakes establish a population where they arrive."

In order to prevent the establishment of the snakes in other regions, Wildlife Services, a part of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, conducts regular operations on Guam to keep the brown tree snakes from reaching other destinations. Wildlife service teams use snake trapping and spotlight searches.

The terriers are used for these searches because they are agile and highly energetic. All Department of Defense aircraft, household goods, vehicles and cargo are required to be searched by them prior to departure.

"By inspecting items and aircraft per the regulatory requirements, the wing is able to continue its mission of employing airpower," Hall said.

When a dog locates a snake, they know to scratch in the area the snake is and wait for their handler's instruction.

Being a nocturnal species, the snake is most often found in the jungle and along fence lines. It may be attracted to residential areas by rodents, lizards, poultry, or debris that serves as habitat for snake prey.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, the brown tree snake will readily strike when aggravated, but it does not present a danger to most adults.  A bite from this snake will not penetrate most clothing.  However, the brown tree snake is mildly venomous.  Its bite can cause severe sickness in young children, the elderly, or people with a weakened immune system.

Simple precautions, such as keeping doors and screens secured, screening air ducts and pipes that open to the outdoors, keeping garbage and pet food in secured containers, and removing surrounding vegetation may make a building less attractive to the snakes.

"Be vigilant," Hall said. "When working with items that are being packed thoroughly check for snakes or other pest species and do not leave boxes and containers open overnight."

To report a brown tree snake sighting in on-base housing or in military cargo and transportation departing the island, contact Wildlife Services at 366-3822.