SEATTLE â€“ Although Benny may look like any other black Labrador, his keen sense of smell and love for hunting is helping U.S Customs and Border Protection officers find some of the most highly trafficked wildlife products in the state.
He’s the state’s first dog trained to find illegal wildlife products.
Benny has come a long way, considering that just a little over a year ago his home was a shelter in California. Since then, he’s built quite a resume, now trained to find bear gallbladder, shark fin, firearms, and elephant ivory — one of the most trafficked items in Washington state.
Washington is one of eight major port states, seeing an average of 5,000 wildlife shipments, both legal and illegal, annually. It’s become the fourth largest transnational organized crime in the world, prompting officers to rely on dogs like Benny to sniff out the bad guys, who is one of eight wildlife detection dogs in America.
â€śHeâ€™s a total goofball,â€ť said Lauren Wendt, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Detective and Bennyâ€™s handler. â€śAnd heâ€™s just so motivated to train and search. Itâ€™s fun for me as a handler because I never have to get him amped up, heâ€™s always ready to go.â€ť
Wendt and Benny already have a system in place. The 2-year-old Labrador will weave through pallets stacked with potential illegal animal products, and if Benny suspects something, heâ€™ll pause to give it a more thorough sniff, then sit next to the shipment.
And while most dogs prefer a reward of the edible kind, Benny chooses a ball on a rope.
â€śThatâ€™s his paycheck,â€ť Wendt said. â€śHe loves it. â€śAs much as he likes the ball, at the end when he finds something, just the search itself is extremely fun. His hunt drive is just off the charts.â€ť
Wendtâ€™s recruitment of Benny all started with the passage of Washingtonâ€™s first ever illegal wildlife trafficking law, criminalizing the sale, purchase and trade of 10 species, including elephants, lions, and tigers in November 2015.
â€ś(Washington stateâ€™s) ports of entry have seen the full spectrum of illegal wildlife shipments, live reptiles, elephant ivory, rhino horn, traditional Asian medicines (including medicines containing leopard, pangolin, bear, musk deer, and sea horses), illegally harvested hunting trophies, sturgeon caviar, protected bird parts, sea cucumbers and shark fins,â€ť said John Goldman, who supervises a team of five U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors in the Pacific Northwest.
To help with minimizing the number of illegal shipments that come through, Wendt approached her agency with an idea thatâ€™s been successful in other major ports, like Anchorage, Chicago, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and Puerto Rico.
â€śI thought hey, all these wildlife products are often smuggled just like narcotics are and law enforcement has been using dogs to detect narcotics for an extremely long time,â€ť she said. â€śWhy donâ€™t we look into getting a dog to do this for illegal wildlife products.â€ť
Just last fall, Benny became certified to detect illegal wildlife products. Although state owned, he helps federal agencies as well. Not to mention, he has added one more special task to his resume â€“ helping Seattle and Lakewood police search for firearms used in crimes.
When Wendt first began training Benny, sheâ€™d hide a toy and wildlife product together, instructing Benny to sit once he found both. Eventually, she began removing the toy and give Benny an orange ball once he learned to sit down in front of the product. Now, Benny can recognize odors more quickly and efficiently.
The two have completed 220 hours of training, which included 80 hours of handler training for Wendt.
Bennyâ€™s growing resume and success has led to the recruitment of another dog with a distinct specialty: detecting endangered illegal aquatic products. The dog will be based in Spokane by summer of next year. The state is also considering having one dog per region that helps solve issues facing that area, like preserving more native species.