Rock Creek woman featured in BBC documentary trains dogs to alert villagers of man-eating predator
By LORI GRANNIS of the Missoulian
Weeks before Rock Creek dog trainer Marielle Schmidt touched down in Bangladesh, news of her coming stretched far and wide through the tiny villages that surround the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans.
A “crazy American” was on her way to pair dogs with people to fend off tigers – a notion inconceivable to a culture that barely acknowledges dogs, let alone forges a relational bond with them.
But just one month before Schmidt was asked by the BBC to take part in their documentary, “Tiger Hounds,” another tiger attack had claimed the life of a villager in Chandpai.
This time, it was an elderly woman – awakened by the weight of a 500-pound Bengal tiger that had crashed through the wall of her hut, and began tearing at the flesh of her throat.
Family members prevented her from being carried away, but the loss of blood she sustained in the attack was too great, and the woman died.
As news of the brutal attack reached Montana, it brought Marielle Schmidt’s role as dog trainer in the upcoming BBC documentary – “Tiger Hounds” will air this fall – into sharper focus.
Most tiger attacks target livestock, according to a report by tiger researcher and conservationist Dr. Monirul Khan, who also appears in the film.
But as more people settle at the edge of the mangrove forest, and continue to trek into the trees for work, the likelihood of attacks will increase, he said.
The honey gatherers of the Sundarbans have walked shoulder-to-shoulder into the dense, lush mangrove forests for generations. More than a vocation, their work is the fabric of culture – a family legacy passed down, and the lifeblood of entire villages.
Hives in the forest are bountiful in spring, and revenue from honey collected throughout the six-month season from April to October sustains families for the year.
Wholesalers pay for forest permits, and provide equipment and the wood-carved boats necessary to navigate the narrow saltwater canals that reach deep into the forest.
As they work, gatherers leave an 18-foot spread between them – to increase their odds of finding
hives – and muddy the air with billows of smoke to rid hives of bees.
It’s the most likely time for a tiger to attack a human.
Tigers are among the best-equipped of global predators, and the shrouded habitat serves their stealth, so the conflict between man and predator marches on, Khan said.
But dogs, said Khan, may be able to help.
Marielle Schmidt has been training dogs in Montana for 15 years.
Well-versed in many training methods, including Schutzhund – a Germanic-based sport and training style often favored by law enforcement to cultivate protection instincts in canines – she’s also trained dogs in detection and scent work.
As owner of Dogwerks All Breed Training, Schmidt teaches group classes at Fort Missoula throughout the spring and summer, boards dogs for weeks of personal training on her multi-acre country spread, and conducts one-on-one private lessons in area homes.
But in the last six years, her work with dogs has gone beyond training suburban companion animals to sit and stay.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Schmidt won contracts with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, training dogs in bomb detection, and she worked extensively with local drug enforcement agents, teaching drug detection and man-trailing through scent.
“It takes a special dog to do detection work,” said Schmidt, who learned about the careful selection process of working dogs during that time with government and law enforcement.
The work also sent her to Guam to train dogs to detect brown tree snakes. The snakes have venom, she said, but the real issue is that they’re invasive to crops, and are taking over the island.
For the Guam project, Schmidt worked with dogs of her choosing, from Hamilton and Bozeman shelters, and imported them to the island.
She didn’t have that luxury in Bangladesh.
“The point of the documentary was to use local dogs, so that villagers could develop their own pack,” said Schmidt. “That was the challenge of it.”
The BBC?documentary, and Schmidt’s role in it, was born last year.
While producing a nature film entitled “Ganges,” BBC filmmakers discovered the Sundarbans Tiger Project – a conservation movement centered around preservation of the few remaining Bengal tigers in the mangrove forest habitat.
Ingrid Kvale is producing “Tiger Hounds” for the BBC2 and its award-winning natural history series, called “Natural World.”
The documentary examines the conflict between man and tiger, and looks at both the conservation of tigers and solutions that would aid in preserving human life.
Tiger conservationist Khan has been engaged in research on tiger populations for several years. It was his work that helped inspire the film.
Kvale said the BBC was particularly interested in Khan’s research because it supported the idea that dogs could be a useful tool in helping to temper the conflict between man and tiger.
The only thing left was finding an able trainer who could work with the dogs.
Kvale found Schmidt through a Montana nonprofit called “Working Dogs for Conservation,” based in Three Forks.
“The group recommended a number of suitable dog trainers,” she said. “But Marielle had the right mix of protection and detection dog training work.”
Schmidt’s background in training dogs to alert the presence of snakes also married well with Khan’s ideas that dogs – if allowed in the forests alongside honey gatherers, woodcutters and fishermen – could alert the presence of tigers prior to an attack.
When the BBC called, Schmidt was quick to say “yes.”
Historically, Bengalis see dogs as “filthy pests,” Kvale said.
They are often mistreated and never kept as pets. Veterinary care for dogs is unheard of.
So Schmidt’s challenge was not only to train the dogs, but to coax a culture to embrace the idea that the undernourished mongrels that skulk and seek scraps along the village fringe could save lives.
Schmidt made her first trip to Chandpai in January of this year, and sized up dogs in a mass “audition” held in a central schoolyard in the middle of the village.
Most were too timid and fearful to join a pack, or to withstand the rigors of aggression training.
“These were wild dogs who wouldn’t take meat from my hands because they were too scared,” said Schmidt.
Not near enough gumption to bark at a tiger.
Potential handlers were unfamiliar with simple commands, fights broke out, and bedlam and chaos took center stage.
The first dogs chosen were Tom and Som – half-brothers who lived together as intact males in a neighboring village of honey gatherers.
Bitu was next, from the village of Ghagramari. Schmidt said handler Sonjoy had been considered odd by other villagers for providing Bitu with surgical care to remove a tumor from his ear.
Next was Shiek and handler Tajul.
Then, Khalu and handler Yunus.
Tom II and timid handler Nur.
Pack leader Bullet and Shoobood.
And an infirm Tommy and his handler, Wahed.
Between courses of worming and veterinary care, handlers developed relationships with their canine charges, and learned pack mentality from Schmidt.
Through translation, Schmidt explained the process of training and boiled it down to the most basic commands.
“I started with obedience to establish communication,” Schmidt said. “We taught things like heel, sit, stay, come, lie down and high-five.”
Schmidt then progressed to box work – placing tiger scent inside a single box among several.
Only half showed promise.
Next, Schmidt donned a tiger costume to build aggression through suspicion, and to increase confidence through progressive threat.
She then trained handlers to form a human pack, to hold sticks and move slowly, chanting in unison.
“Our goal was to create a pack that would sound and look threatening but leaves opportunity for the tiger to leave,” Schmidt said.
The goal for conservationists like Khan, and University of Minnesota researcher, Adam Barlow, is to find a way for humans to avoid bodily harm through detection, and for tigers to be able to leave without harm.
Schmidt said tigers are often beaten to death by packs of villagers who fear they will strike livestock or stalk humans.
“It’s almost unbelievable that people can pack up and actually kill these animals,” she said.
But they do.
Khan’s recent research estimates there are only 500 or 600 tigers remaining in the Sundarbans.
During Schmidt’s second trip in April, BBC documentarians captured footage of the aftermath of a tiger attack.
A local fisherman had been attacked, killed, and carried off into the mangroves while trying to save his friend from the first strike of the attack.
Villagers wanted to kill the tiger and recover the man. Barlow stepped in to temper chaos and led a group into the forest to claim remains.
Though she was not present, Kvale said bits of the footage will be included in the final product because the attack punctuates that this conflict is a problem that too often affects the poorest of people.
“The man who died had none of his own land on which he could be buried,” she said.
Following Schmidt’s two trips to Chandpai, and her work with both dog packs and humans, Kvale said she thinks locals now have enough skills to mobilize as a pack themselves, without killing tigers.
The skills, she said, are enough to chase off trespassing tigers that may come into the village in search of food.
Barlow said he isn’t so sure.
“Marielle did some amazing things in a short time, and overall the idea of using dogs is a good one worth exploring,” he said. The question isn’t whether dogs could work in this context, he said, but whether anyone will see it through with funding and time so that there are functioning packs and adequate, ongoing training.
Back home in Rock Creek, it’s business as usual.
Smart-as-a-whip border collies and stalwart Labrador retrievers are learning to obey commands, learning to hunt with their masters, and continuing to refrain from sleeping on couches and beds.
But the worlds that separate Montana from the Sundarbans of Bangladesh still baffle Marielle Schmidt.
The 18-hour journey fails to portray the vast differences between her everyday life in the northern Rockies and that of villagers in the faraway mangrove forests.
But she is wiser for the journey.