Analysis | How many dogs have government jobs? What about sea lions?

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Washington is going to the dogs — for real this time.

As of 2022, the federal government employed 5,159 German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, beagles, Jack Russell terriers and other forms of everyone’s favorite furry friend. An additional 421 worked as canine contractors.

The job descriptions for these four-legged feds range from the sublime — 31 help “park rangers traverse Denali National Park in winter” — to the subprime: Others “detect waterfowl feces” infected with bird flu.

We found the work of these politically connected canines described in magical detail in a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which apparently is taking its role as government watchdog literally. The report — which addresses the working conditions of working dogs — somehow escaped our noticed until we were scooped by our friends at USA Facts, a data evangelism and dissemination outfit founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

The majority of Uncle Sam’s shepherds (and other breeds) — almost 3,000 — work for the Department of Homeland Security. About 1,100 of those DHS dogs sniff bags and whatnot for the Transportation Security Administration, otherwise known as everyone’s airport security friend, the TSA. About 1,800 are Pentagon pooches, hard at work for the Defense Department. Together, the two departments account for 85 percent of total federal working breeds.

Across every agency and other government-adjacent institution included in the database, the most common use for dogs seems to be detecting explosives and drugs — tasks they perform in places as diverse as Amtrak (57 police dogs), the U.S. Postal Service (47 dogs) and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (eight dogs). The SPR, in particular, would seem to have an incentive to ask its dogs to detect anything that might blow up — anything other than its 360 million barrels of crude oil, that is.

Dogs also patrol and search hard-to-reach areas, such as federal wildlife refuges; track people on Forest Service land and for the Department of Veterans Affairs Police Service; and apprehend suspects for law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service. At some agencies, dogs even work to identify currency, firearms, pests and invasive species.

As you might imagine, given their demanding and sometimes dangerous jobs, these productive pups often undergo months of training — more training than is required in many human occupations. The GAO finds “procuring and training a dog can cost approximately $65,000 to $85,000.” If that were an annual salary, it would put our canine colleagues between GS-7 and GS-11 in D.C., depending on level of experience.

Furthermore, the GAO says these dogs ought to be provided with “food and water,” housing “at a handler’s home or at a kennel,” and “exercise for working dogs appropriate to weight and breed” — the kind of lifestyle perks you don’t usually get until you rise to GS-14 or so.

How many other animals work for the feds? We’re curious!

The U.S. Army sold its last homing pigeon in 1957. If “guinea pig” counts as a job, the National Institutes of Health keep thousands of mice, rats, fish, hamsters, pigs, dogs, rabbits, monkeys and, yes, guinea pigs, according to an analysis of Agriculture Department and NIH data by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. NASA employed monkeys and chimpanzees as astronauts, or at least as prominent research subjects. But the space agency reportedly euthanized what appeared to be its last 27 nonhuman primates on a single day in 2019.

The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program has at various points tested a dozen marine mammals — including orcas, pilot whales and seals — for duties such as mine detection and swimmer defense. Birds, sea turtles and sharks also have been pressed into service.

As of early 2023, the Navy still trained a reported 77 dolphins and 47 sea lions. According to the New York Times, the Navy no longer breeds dolphins and plans to phase out the animals in favor of underwater drones. Meanwhile, the animals, some of which were once deployed in America’s foreign wars, are helping break new ground involving research on kidney stones, cataracts, weight issues and all the other indignities faced by aging veterans everywhere.

Maybe Americans just hate school buses?

A few of you contacted us about our column regarding a sharp drop in school-bus use during the coronavirus pandemic to say we’d missed the obvious: People aren’t riding school buses because buses are — and we’re paraphrasing here — bully-riddled, foul-smelling, wildly inconvenient, rolling disease vectors.

To be honest, we had dismissed that line of thinking because, as far as we can recall, school buses could be unpleasant even before the pandemic. So it may not explain the drop.

Also, we didn’t have data on school-bus popularity. Until, that is, our friend Carl Bialik of the online polling company YouGov read the column and reacted the only way he knows how: with polling. This month, Bialik asked 1,117 U.S. adults what they thought of the transportation that had taken them to school.

Buses lost. Only 34 percent of us who had ridden the bus “liked” or “loved” the experience, a figure that appears downright pitiable next to the incredible 91 percent who said the same about driving themselves. In fact, having your own set of wheels was wildly popular even if there was no engine involved: Riding a bike (or skateboard, or scooter) got 71 percent support.

The fastest-rising mode of transport — being picked up and dropped off by a relative — roughly tied with carpooling at around two-thirds. Though it did better if you looked only at those who said they loved it.

Walking wasn’t beloved — data hints it may be especially unpopular in the Midwest — and public transit wasn’t really anybody’s favorite. But those two modes ran laps around the lowly yellow bus. It was the only mode of transportation to evoke more negative feelings than positive ones.

Of course, something can be tremendously vital and important without being particularly beloved. Just ask the IRS, Interstate 95 or dental floss. Getting to school is the single most important prerequisite for succeeding in school, and the yellow bus is sometimes a child’s only means of doing so.

The best question we can’t answer

During the Spring and Summer in Connecticut there are thousands upon thousands of robins. During the day they only make quiet chirps, but as the sun goes down a single robin or two sit high in a tree and make a loud chant/song until the sun goes down.

Is this night song repeated over and over by a single robin a form of religious service for all robins in the area to their Sun God?

— David ONeil, South Windsor, Conn.

The perhaps unsurprising news, David, is that we just don’t have the data for this. We tried our best, contacting one of our all-time favorite sources, Eliot Miller, now with the American Bird Conservancy.

If anyone on the planet could decode your robins, it would be Miller, the man who once helped us determine — once and for all — which birds are the biggest jerks at the feeder.

Miller helped develop a Cornell Lab of Ornithology app that recognizes birdsong, and he now crisscrosses the Americas setting up recorders and analyzing audio data to create new measures of bird diversity. Unfortunately, even Miller’s artificial intelligence models can’t identify Sun God worship among robins, though he sounded like he was tempted to try.

But there’s good news: Miller doesn’t need AI to guess what went down in Connecticut.

“Birds, particularly migratory birds like robins, breed on an annual cycle,” he told us. “Their gonads enlarge, testosterone starts pumping, and all of a sudden they go from making little whines and chirps when they get scared or annoyed to full-blown songs until the sun goes down.

“This particularly happens leading up to when they actually have babies. Why? Because now is when they are duking it out over who gets to breed where, with which females. Later, when there are babies, they’ll actually cut back on the singing, presumably to draw less attention to their nest.”

Miller did leave the door open to robin religion, however. The mating-related explanations “are ideas humans have come up with,” he said. “They’re probably right, but you got to ask the birds to be sure.”

Hi! The Department of Data is on a quest for queries. What are you curious about: What fish swim the fastest? Has news coverage really grown more negative? What’s the best workplace in pro sports? Just ask!

If your question inspires a column, we’ll send you an official Department of Data button and ID card. This week, we’re mailing them to Nate Johnold at USAFacts, who spotted the government dogs data, Carl Bialik at YouGov and thrush theologian David ONeil.

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