OAKWOOD — It's sunny and cool early Wednesday morning in a quiet, mostly empty campground at Kickapoo State Park.
John Rucker sits at a picnic table next to his tent eating his usual in-the-field breakfast of oats and raisins. His turtle-hunting dogs spent the night close by in makeshift pens in the back of Rucker's well-worn 1992 red minivan that's logged more than 400,000 miles across 10 states, carrying Rucker and his dogs to various turtle-hunting jobs.
Sometimes oats are also lunch and supper for Rucker. It's difficult to take eight Boykin Spaniels to a local restaurant or hotel. So Rucker, who prefers "a tent to anything," makes do at local campgrounds, like the one at Kickapoo where he's spent the last three nights with little more than a tent, his van, a little food, a couple water containers, a few bags of clothes and a guitar.
"That's the key," he says of the guitar. "I couldn't stay alone this long on the road without it. It keeps me company."
Since Sunday, he and the dogs have been spending their days helping researchers from the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine and the Illinois State Natural History Survey find Eastern Box Turtles at two different parks in Vermilion County.
Rucker and his dogs are in demand because the high-energy, eager-to-please dogs can find more turtles in a shorter amount of time than a team of people. He says the beauty of Boykins is they don't mind thickets, don't overheat easily and have small heads with weak jaws that don't hurt the turtles.
Of the 46 box turtles the search team marked since Sunday, the dogs found 42. Their record, Rucker says, was 70 Ornate Box Turtles in one day near Savanna.
The dark, wavy-haired, bird-dog-bred Boykins use their natural hunting and retrieving abilities to track the scent of box turtles, gently clasping their dome-shaped shells in their mouths and delivering them to Rucker, or the nearest member of the search team, just for praise. Rucker doesn't reward with bones.
"They start hunting for the treat, not the game," says Rucker, who describes himself as an old bird-dog man. In his 64 years, he says, he has always had dogs at the center of his life.
Rucker waits at the campground each morning for Matt Allender, an instructor at the UI College of Veterinary Medicine, who leads him to the day's hunting spot.
Sunday and Monday, it was the Middle Fork Fish and Wildlife Area in western Vermilion County and Kickapoo State Park. Tuesday, it was Forest Glen Nature Preserve near Westville, and today, it's back to the Middle Fork near Collison.
Chris Phillips, a biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, and a group of UI veterinary medicine and biology students are already waiting for Rucker and Allender at the hunt site. Rucker hasn't quite finished his oats when Allender, a Champaign native, arrives in an SUV with license plates that read "TRTL DR1."
Allender is as passionate about saving turtles as Rucker.
"Saving the world one box turtle at a time," Allender says, sitting across the picnic table from Rucker and his oats, discussing the week's work and how it will significantly help his research into health threats to the turtles, like a ranavirus he discovered in a Tennessee turtle in 2003. Allender's work in that state represents the longest and largest health assessment of box turtles anywhere in the world, and he is now expanding that work to Illinois.
Rucker and Allender met in Tennessee, where Rucker lives in a tiny house with no power, no running water and no television, radio or computer. Box turtles are thick there, and 10 years ago, Rucker discovered that his Boykin Spaniel had a knack for finding them.
"The whole turtle thing — it just came out of nowhere," says Rucker, whose subsequent Boykins have continued to pick up the knack. Eventually, researchers learned of Rucker and his turtle-sniffing dogs.
He spends up to six months a year taking the dogs to jobs that include research as well as rescue purposes. His next stop is Indiana, where he and the dogs will spend about a month rescuing turtles by helping officials find as many as possible for temporary relocation prior to an Interstate highway expansion project.
But the mission this week is research.
Allender and his students draw blood from each turtle and gather other medical data on the Eastern Box, whose population is declining and is now officially listed as vulnerable to extinction, according to Allender. Phillips and his biology students gather information for ecology purposes, like size and weight, and mark the turtles.
Though they each have specific areas of research or study, Allender and Phillips share their information in a collaborative effort to conserve the box turtle. Hopefully marked turtles can be found again, so they can gather more data for valuable comparisons.
Phillips has three sites in the state, including Middle Fork, where he's trying to track turtles over a 10-year period. With no funding for the work, Phillips said bringing in the dogs to find more turtles in a short amount of time helps.
At the day's hunt site, Rucker is equipped with only a few worn leashes wrapped around his waist and divides the dogs into two teams of four, the A team — the better hunters — and a B team. The A team always starts the day. The dogs fan out across the woods, noses to the ground, with Rucker and the rest of the search team following, constantly encouraging the dogs to "find turtles."
When they do, team members take the turtles from the dogs and mark the spot with handheld GPS devices and a ribbon, so the students can return the turtles to the exact spot later in the day after blood samples and other information are gathered.
After successful hunts the first three days, finding more than 40 turtles, the last day proves to be slow-going. Allender, who's been on hunts with the dogs many times, believes "it's a turtle thing," not the dogs. The search area has been very dry this spring, he says, which may have caused the turtles to move elsewhere.
Rucker says there will be days like this — some low, some high — but if the dogs average a dozen turtles a day for a job, then he feels he's earning his pay.
Allender says his goal was to find 32 to 40 turtles in the four-day event, and they found 46. He says it's been tremendous to expand their information on the turtles, and the dogs were an integral part of their conservation efforts. Allender says the dogs will be back in June to continue the work.
"It's just remarkable to have the dogs help us with something so close to home," he says.