NEWNAN, Ga. -- As the new harnesses were presented in a special graduation ceremony, Butter tried to jump up and put it on himself. The woman who rescued her said the lab had good reason to be excited.
"She was stuck in a fenced-in yard, so to see her today and see how far she's come was really rewarding," Florence Jones said.
Butter and three other dogs are the first graduates of a new program to fight illegal wildlife smuggling. Over the last 13 weeks they were trained by the USDA in Newnan, Georgia to sniff out things like snake skins and ivory. They'll be posted in major shipping hubs like Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and Louisville.
In the past two years, the values of elephant tusks, rhino horns, sea turtle shells and even dried sea horses have exploded on the black market. Hundreds of rhinos and elephants are killed every year for their horns and tusks.
"Wildlife poaching and smuggling has become an epidemic here and worldwide," said Edward Grace, the Deputy Chief of Law Enforcement for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. "Wildlife smuggling ranks right behind drugs and guns; it's the third most lucrative illegal trade that's out there at this moment."
Currently human inspectors take hours going over shipping palates and containers that can hold thousands of boxes. In tests so far, dogs have been shown to accomplish the same tasks in minutes, with better accuracy. Labs in particular are used because they can easily jump up and down on obstacles like cars and conveyor belts.
Florence Jones watched like a proud parent as the dogs demonstrated what they could do Thursday for a small audience. She said it would be tough to say goodbye.
"[Her trainer] Denise has promised to keep me in touch with what's going on with her," Jones said of Butter, "And I'll be able to follow her career that way."
Eden Godbee, WXIA