The Turtle-Whisperer’s Apprentice
By Carla Morris
“Hunt turtle,” John Rucker tells his Boykin spaniels. They immediately oblige. The trio sniffs through a manmade prairie field in Coffeen, Illinois, owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).
Rucker and his dogs are legendary to conservationists intent on saving North America’s declining population of box turtles. His Boykins sniff out seven or more turtles in the time it takes a human to find one. They can pick up the scent of a hatchling the size of a quarter in an acre of land. Their “eager to please” disposition coupled with a gentle mouth makes them perfect for hunting turtle.
The retired English teacher and self-taught naturalist breeds and trains the dogs. Some call Rucker “America’s turtle-whisperer.” For one remarkable day in July, Greenville University student Cheyanne Hulvey served as the turtle-whisperer’s apprentice. A junior majoring in environmental biology, Cheyanne interned with the IDNR, whose team called on Rucker for help.
Mission: Save the Turtles
“The purpose of the turtle project was to look for endangered ornate box turtles,” Cheyanne explained—endangered because more than 90 percent of Illinois’ natural prairie has succumbed to development or farming and reduced the turtles’ favored habitat. Researchers with the IDNR wanted to know if a manmade prairie field would attract the turtles and sustain them. Rucker’s dogs found two in a small area.
“It showed there is hope,” said Cheyanne.
Her day with Rucker also brought another revelation: the inspiration a novice can draw from a seasoned expert who pursues what he loves with conviction and joy. Cheyanne desires a vocation more than a job. “The quality of Mr. Rucker’s passion is what I look for.”
Inspiration . . . Daily
Students expect to learn skills in internships. They expect to acquire references and gain experience that will enhance their employability. Expecting inspiration as well may be too much to ask, but Cheyanne struck the mother lode. Throughout the summer, she worked with more than a dozen scientists across three areas in the IDNR: fisheries, forestry and wildlife. She surveyed ponds, banded geese, earned certification in working with contained field fires and absorbed all that Rucker would teach her—why he chose the female Boykins, why he wet them down before releasing them, how he could tell they detected a scent and more.
By summer’s end, the impact of her mentors stood out.
After helping fish biologists measure, weigh and document bass, she observed, “It is not just another job to them. This is something they want to do for the rest of their lives. I have come to realize that I am in the right field of work . . . I love constantly learning about nature.”
Cheyanne’s internship also increased her appreciation for the way God speaks through every detail of His creation, but she cautions, “You have to be willing to listen.”
Host a G.U. Intern: Paid Internships for Nonprofits Courtesy of State Work Study Program
Grant funding with the Illinois Cooperative Work Study Program paid for Cheyanne’s internship. “This is a great way for not-for-profits to have paid interns,” says Kelli Pryor, coordinator for career services at G.U. Contact Kelli to learn more: email@example.com.
GC Alumnus Snyder Named Conservation Educator of the Year
Keeping the Wild in Wilderness – the Nation Celebrates Zahniser’s Work
Environmental Biology Major Overview
Ayers Field Station & White Environmental Center
When you fund a scholarship through The Greenville University Fund, you give students like Cheyanne access to rich learning experiences from a Christ-centered perspective. Click here to give.
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of The RECORD. Photo of box turtle by Peter Paplanus used with permission.