Mayke, a beautiful, energetic Belgian Malinois, would rather track rare critters for conservationists than sniff out drugs and bombs for the U.S. Border Patrol.
As a result, the German-born canine spends her time with Arizona biologist Chris Bugbee, on the trail of the elusive "El Jefe," the only known jaguar living wild and free in the United States, which Bugbee's organization Conservation CATalyst caught on video released earlier this year.
That's the tale told by a new video and photos of Bugbee and Mayke together, as Mayke uses her incredible nose to sniff out El Jefe's scent in the rugged Santa Rita Mountains, where the solitary Panthera onca makes his home.
Tom Brown, a spokesman for the Tucson-based Center for Biodiversity, a nonprofit concerned with protecting the habitats of endangered and near-threatened species, told New Times that his organization has teamed up with Conservation CATalyst to keep an eye on El Jefe.
And Mayke has been an amazing asset to that goal, thanks in no small part to the Border Patrol's not needing the expensive, highly trained pooch.
"Mayke was acquired by the Border Patrol, tested, and had an aversion to noise and traffic," Brown says. "She wasn't very good at drug stops. So they passed on her."
The Border Patrol's loss was a gain for environmentalists. Bugbee has been Mayke's trainer since the beginning of Mayke's time with Conservation CATalyst, Brown said. And the two have formed a close working relationship.
Conservation CATalyst's online bio for Mayke tells the rest of the story:
Conservation CATalyst acquired Mayke in 2012 to give her a second chance as a working detection dog, not for drugs or explosives, but for poop. Jaguar and ocelot poop (scat). Her job was to help biologist and handler Chris Bugbee locate and collect jaguar and ocelot poop, or scat, for scientific analysis. Considering there was only one known wild jaguar in Arizona, the famous El Jefe, and maybe a few ocelots, this was a difficult assignment.
But here is where Mayke has truly shined. Working with her partner and trainer Chris, she has long overcome her fear of trucks and her debilitating lack of confidence. She has trekked hundreds of miles throughout the Arizona wilderness. She bounds through streams, jumps over boulders, and climbs to the highest ridges.
She has come face to face with rattlesnakes, bears, bobcats, and mountain lions… and she loves every minute of it. The shy, trembling Mayke of old has been replaced with a strong, confident and dedicated researcher. In fact, she now claims the distinction of having located the first genetically-verified jaguar scats ever collected on U.S. soil. Her story is one of second chances, perseverance and success.
Brown says that the Center for Biodiversity is funding Conservation CATalyst's research into big cats, and putting Mayke's story out there helps explain the importance of the two groups' collaboration.
"It's a good story," he says. "Mayke's a good dog, and we need that jaguar."
Which begs the question: Why?
Brown claimed that the idea is to reintroduce (or perhaps in this case, welcome) these magnificent creatures to areas where they once roamed.
"They used to be as far north as Colorado back in the 1800s," Brown said of the jaguars. "We believe that animals should be back in their original territories as much as possible. And this one came back over [from Mexico]."
Of course, El Jefe's on his own as far as finding a female with which to breed. Brown says his organization wants to protect the habitat, in hopes that El Jefe and other jaguars will move in and make little jaguars.
Interestingly, the Center for Biodiversity takes a different view on reproduction for homo sapiens, sponsoring a line of "endangered species condoms" with colorful illustrations of threatened wildlife and playful admonitions, such as "Wrap with care, save the polar bear," and "For the sake of the honed lizard, slow down, love wizard."
According to center's pitch for the condoms, the concern is "runaway population growth," which "along with our reckless over-consumption" is causing the planet's "sixth mass extinction crisis."
The project's panther condom?
"Don't go bare, panthers are rare."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
If the center is taking suggestions, it also could use one of the following, free of charge, from the author of this post:
"If you fancy her, remember the panther," or,
"Before you go too far, think about the jaguar," or,
"If you wanna make a baby, stop and remember El Jefe."