The Auditor was an eccentric lone-wolf with a talent for showing up when and where he was least expected. The old hermit was quite well-liked in spite of his taciturn nature. In fact, this one of a kind pit dog became a local celebrity. As reported last summer in the High Country News:
The mysterious, mostly wild mongrel has survived for 16 years in a 5,000-acre moonscape, the acidic, heavy metals-laden confines of the Berkeley Pit and the town’s only remaining active mine. Ironically, the dog’s only help in hanging on has come from the compassion of active and retired miners.
“He really is a neat dog,” says Steve Walsh, operations president of Montana Resources, whose employees have adopted the dog as their mascot — as much as the dog will allow, anyway.
The Auditor was first seen roaming the mine in 1986 after he was reportedly dumped at the mine’s viewing stand by a heartless owner. He died in his doghouse November 19, 2003 after surviving nearly 17 years on his own in one of the least hospitable places this side of the moon.
Not a single blade of grass, nary a tree, shrub or weed can survive on the sickly yellow and burnt-orange crust that dominates the dog’s home. Reeking of sulfur and acidity, this is the kind of soil that eats men’s boots, let alone the paws of any normal dog.
Butte Montana’s Berkeley Pit is an enormous open pit copper mine. A mile long, a half mile wide and almost 1,800 feet deep, it contains toxic levels of a veritable smorgasbord of heavy metals. It’s the second largest open pit mine in the world and the largest Superfund site in the US. Most of the site’s environmental problems are caused by acid mine drainage. Pyrite and other minerals in the ore and wall rock are only chemically stable in anaerobic environments like those they form in. When mining actiities expose these minerals to water and oxygen they break down and release acid. Water in the Berkeley Pit has a pH of about 2.5, roughly the same as gastric acid. These acidic waters are excellent solvents for metals. In fact, the water filling the pit contains such high dissolved metal concentrations that copper is recovered directly from it. The toxic stew also contains elevated quantities of arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, iron, manganese and zinc.
It’s incredible that a dog was able to survive for nearly two decades in such an inhospitable environment. The Auditor’s success in avoiding acute heavy metal poisoning was likely related to the very strong and long-lasting effects of tatse-aversion learning. Taste-aversion learning is a type of classical conditioning where an animal associates the taste of a specific item with nausea or vomiting. Taste aversion is a valuable survival mechanism that allows animals to learn to avoid a poisonous substance in as little as a single exposure. Unlike most other classically conditioned responses, a strong association will be acquired even if the unconditioned respose (i.e. illness) occurs several hours after the neutral (but soon to be conditioned) stimulus. This innate ability to associate the taste, smell and appearance of a potentially harmful item ingested long before the illness occurred allows the animal to anticipate — and thus avoid — the problem in the future.
The Auditor’s ability to survive life on a Superfund site caught the attention of Holly Peterson, a professor of environmental engineering at Montana Tech of the University of Montana. Peterson had conducted a study where she compared metal concentrations in hair samples collected from pet dogs living in Butte and Bozeman. Her study indicated that dogs that lived in Butte were exposed to much higher levels of arsenic, lead and cadmium than Bozeman dogs were. When she heard about the Auditor, she couldn’t help but wonder what kind of metal concentrations she’d find in his hair.
The report indicated elevated levels of everything imaginable, the professor says. To date, she has sampled more than 400 dogs with the help of her graduate students at UM/Butte. She hopes to use the data they’ve collected to develop a new method of using domestic pets as ways to evaluate health risks in the environment.
Pets are increasingly being used as domestic indicator species. They ingest pollutants in tap water, romp on pesticide treated lawns and lick trace amounts of cleaners, surface treatments and other trace contaminants off paws, toys and floors. Their compressed lifespans seems to make them develop health problems from exposure more quickly than we do. In his own small way, the Auditor helped advance this kind of research.
Even before he died in 2003, money was raised to build a monument to the dreadlocked dog. The larger-than-life, 300 pound bronze statue with a copper patina (the Berkeley Pit was a copper mine) has been displayed in a local coffee shop, then a shopping mall, and currently the Butte-Silver Bow Chamber of Commerce. The statue will eventually be put on permanent display at the Berkeley Pit Viewing Stand, along with a plaque telling Auditor’s story. The dog no doubt would use it as a urinal.