PetPlace Salutes Animals That Work for a Living

There are about as many jobs for animals as there are for humans: they detect human cancers, predict earthquakes and sniff out termites. Some act as policemen, pulling guard duty and tracking criminals. Others are caregivers, helping the deaf, the blind and the elderly.

Still others specialize in the arts – they're stars of stage, screen and video. Carrier pigeons have served their country in wartime; cats – as is their genetic wont – rid houses and shops of unwanted wildlife. Even snakes have found their way into the workplace – as therapists, of all things.

"The animals are fabulous," says Carrie Owens, whose book, Working Dogs, chronicles their professional accomplishments. "They help us all whether we realize it or not. Without them, our lives would be a lot less fun and a lot less productive."

Dogs form one of the largest segments of the animal workforce. By one estimate, some 200,000 canines are employed in the United States, many of them committed government servants.

Sixteen years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture formed its Beagle Brigade to sniff out illegal fruits, plants and meat at airports. The dogs are comfortable in crowded, noisy places such as baggage-claim areas; they have an acute sense of smell and don't intimidate the average airline traveler the way a larger, more aggressive animal might. In fact, most people find the dogs endearing. But no matter how innocuous they seem, they get the job done: The Brigade makes about 75,000 seizures of illegal agricultural products every year.

Texanna is one of the most remarkable of them. An 8-year-old who, for the past seven years, has worked out of Charlotte, N.C., she can recognize about 50 odors – the usual apples and oranges, herbs and hot dogs, not to mention the canteen cover she once sniffed out made of reindeer skin.

Cockatoo Therapists

One of the most common animal job titles is "therapist," a line of work that isn't limited to huggable Labradors.

Take Harriet, a 25-year-old umbrella cockatoo who works at the Helen Woodward Animal Center near San Diego. The bird is especially good with paralyzed adults. If a patient can't reach out and touch her, Harriet moves right in, cuddling against a chest, nuzzling a nose, tweaking an ear or stroking a cheek. "Harriet offers unconditional acceptance," says Robin Cohen, outreach services manager for the center. "She doesn't care that patients may not be able to move. She accepts them for who they are at that exact moment, which is a gift only animals can give."

One man who was unable to speak after a stroke started practicing speech with Harriet. After a month of tender loving beak and feathers, he could almost say the cockatoo's name.

The center also employs snakes – rosy boa constrictors to be exact. The creatures are a godsend for people who are allergic to fur, and are used in behavior-therapy, though the subjects (usually young boys) don't know that. "Someone who is autistic or who has spastic movement has to really quiet themselves down to hold a snake," says Cohen.

Horse Therapy

Horses, of course, have traditionally been the heavy lifters of the animal workforce, transporting backbreaking loads and, in the days before the internal-combustion engine, providing mass transit.

Today, their jobs – like everyone else's – have moved into a tighter niche. The Helen Woodward center has a staff of ten trained to help people with disabilities. Patients range in age from four to over 70 and may even be wheelchair-bound (there's a special mounting ramp for the wheelchairs).

The horses help their riders develop balance, muscle tone, posture and learning skills such as hand-eye coordination, concentration and short-term memory. There are also the added benefits of increased self-esteem, independence and control. As for the horses, they know when they're on the job. Whenever Questa, a horse who has been in the program for nine years, gets an able-bodied rider, she's "not very cooperative," says Lisa Orcutt, therapeutic riding administrative supervisor. But when someone with a disability gets on, she becomes a model employee.

Flying Home

Homing pigeons have been used as messengers for thousands of years. During wartime, they have carried critical strategic information, and in the 1800s, they worked as reporters, delivering messages for the Reuters news service.

Rocky Mountain Adventures of Fort Collins, Colo., uses a team of homing pigeons to get film from the start of a white-water rafting trip back to the home office so it can be developed in time for the adventurers to buy photos at the end of a trip. The birds fly at a speed of 60 mph and can cover 20 to 40 miles in less then an hour (10 minutes if they pick up a good tail wind). "The pigeons don't have to worry about stop signs or traffic," says photo manager Mike Breznay.

They wear custom-made lycra-and-velcro backpacks and carry one roll of 35-mm film each. Over five years, the company has lost just three birds (along with their film), probably to falcon predators.

Puss in Books

Hundreds of cats around the country have found places to live and work courtesy of the Library Cat Society. By one estimate, there are 316 cats "in residence" at small-town libraries (There's even a video: "Puss in Books: Adventures of the Library Cat"). As long as library patrons don't object, the cats get their room and board in exchange for providing comfort to children and older people who don't have their own pets.

Of course, feline usefulness is not limited to libraries and their professions aren't always so genteel: Cats are routinely employed in shops to catch mice. Another kind of hired gun is a border collie named Jackie, who works at Pennsylvania's Willow Grove Naval Air Station, patrolling runways and taxiways, keeping incoming and outgoing planes bird free.

In the same vein, a Marston Mills, Mass., border collie named Tess is employed to keep Canada geese off the fairway at a golf course. She's even a member in good standing of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2977.

Dogs of War

Although the U.S. War Department waited till 1942 to start an official canine program, there were four-footed recruits long before then.

One of the most famous was Stubby, a bull terrier-boxer mix, the only American dog known to have served in World War I. Stubby was adopted by the Army's 102nd Infantry in Connecticut in 1917 and soon became one of the boys, eating with the soldiers, sleeping with them and, in February of 1918, sailing with them to Europe (having successfully smuggled himself aboard the troopship).

He proved his mettle under fire, comforting wounded soldiers on the battlefield, sniffing out impending mustard-gas attacks (and barking ferociously to warn his mates). Once, Stubby even stopped an escaping German spy, grabbing him by the seat of his pants and hanging (doggedly) on.

After the war, presidents Wilson, Harding and Coolidge all had audiences with Stubby; and General Pershing awarded him a gold medal. The dog led more regimental parades than any other dog in American history, writes Mary Elizabeth Thurston in her book, The Lost History of the Canine Race, and was promoted to honorary sergeant, becoming the highest-ranking dog ever to serve in the Army.