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A Dog Named Pena Helps Iguanas

Working in the field to locate iguanas and iguana nests can be quite a challenge. Fort Worth Zoo Conservation Biologist Kelly Bradley has been studying the Critically Endangered Anegada Rock Iguana (Cyclura pinguis) for many years, with partner National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands and supporting grants, including from IIF. In 2022, she got some extra help, her own personal conservation assistant: a dog named Pena.


Pena was originally imported from Europe to join a federal scent-detection canine program. She passed the initial performance screening but, once in the training program, did not meet the standards to work as a bomb dog. Professional dog trainer Paul Bunker took her instead, and he trained her to be part of a scent-detection research trial on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security. On completion of the trial, she was available for adoption. Kelly had previously talked to Paul about wanting an Iguana Detection Dog. The stars aligned, and Kelly adopted Pena!

The goal was for Pena to assist in detecting iguana nests on Anegada, and Paul and Kelly taught her the smell of iguana nest material. However, her training was conducted near San Antonio, Texas, and, of course, there were no examples of wild Anegada Iguana nests there for Pena to track. So, a device was developed to simulate iguana nests, and Iguanaland in Florida kindly helped by shipping target material—nest sand used by Anegada Iguanas—to Paul’s Chiron K9 facility. 

Pena completed her training period on the iguana nest detection device before traveling to Anegada with Kelly. Paul joined them on the island, and Pena’s in-field training continued. On Paul’s last day, Pena gave a response on a depression in the sand. Upon investigation, she had found an iguana nest tunnel! 

Pena returned to Chiron K9 for further training later in 2022, this time to learn to detect iguana hatchlings. Again, with no wild Anegada Iguanas in Texas, a device was developed to assist in teaching Pena the odor. Once she understood how to use the device, the team returned to Anegada. There, hatchlings were used in the device to teach Pena the target smell. After three days of training, Pena went with Kelly and Paul into the field to see how she would do. On the first day, Pena responded to a hatchling she located in a small bush, which Kelly was able to capture to take to the headstarting facility. Good dog, Pena!

Now that she’s got the hang of it, Pena will be a big help to Kelly and the research team in locating Anegada Iguana nests and hatchlings. Nests can then be protected, and juveniles can be brought into the safety of the headstarting facility to grow large enough to defend themselves against predators. Pena deserves a gold star for being a “conservation canine”!

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