A beautiful June morning is a perfect time for a walk in the Tennessee mountains.
So that’s just what John Rucker and his hiking buddy, Buster, did.
The previous evening’s showers had roused some native inhabitants, like the colorful box turtle chomping on a mushroom along the trail. Rucker called Buster over to take a look.
“I was just talking to him and said, ‘Hey Buster, look at this. What do you think?’ He showed a flicker of interest and ran on,” Rucker says.
Minutes later, the Boykin Spaniel trotted back and proudly presented Rucker with a box turtle. “I praised him, and as soon as he was out of sight, I hid it in the leaves and continued walking. In less than five minutes, he returned with another turtle,” Rucker says. “That early morning, Buster brought me about a dozen turtles, and on that day, for me, a new sport was born.”
All that summer, more than a decade ago, Buster fetched turtles as fast as he could find them. “He became a fanatic about it,” he says. Rucker thought the turtle obsession was unique to Buster until he added his second Boykin—a puppy named Sparky. “He started imitating Buster, so now I had two turtle dogs,” he says.
Today, Rucker has a team of turtle-hunting Boykins who have assisted with research and educational projects around the country. Hundreds of turtles have been saved from the treads of bulldozers, thanks to the keen noses of his canines.
At first, Rucker kept quiet about the dogs’ turtle-hunting prowess, concerned that publicity would encourage people to train dogs to hunt turtles for sale on the black market. As more states passed laws against selling turtles, he began to feel comfortable about sharing the dogs’ skills. A friend who worked at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro told colleagues in the biology department about Rucker and his dogs.
“They got in touch and asked me to help with a turtle study there, and I did,” he says. Then word just spread.
When spring arrives and turtles stop hibernating, Rucker’s calendar fills up and he and his dogs on the road.
The Boykins have helped relocate hundreds of box turtles from dangerous highways and conducted educational programs. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission organized a series of family turtle-tracking expeditions, so families could see the dogs in action.
“The dogs are a great way to introduce the public to the woods in a nonthreatening environment, since a lot of people like dogs and feel comfortable with them,” wildlife-education specialist Kelsey Obernuefemann says. “It is a great way to see turtles and get outdoors and discover your local environment.”