Crittercam Pioneer

For the sake of science, the Heithaus family dog shoulders his gear and heads into the wild

Pat and Ray Heithaus have long been mainstays of Kenyon's biology department, Pat as an instructor and Ray as a professor, environmental-studies expert, and executive director of the Brown Family Environmental Center. Now their family dog, Beckett, has entered the annals of biological research.

Without so much as an undergraduate degree, let alone a pedigree, the German Shepherd-Labrador Retriever mix has become a pioneer in the use of the "crittercam," a portable camera that rides atop an animal, giving researchers-and the rest of us-a bobbing, weaving beast's-eye view of the world.

The lightweight video camera and data-logging system is perhaps best known through its use on the television show Crittercam, broadcast on the National Geographic Channel. There, it has allowed TV audiences to swim vicariously with such elusive wild creatures as sea turtles, blue whales, and nurse sharks.

The show is hosted by Mike Heithaus, Ray and Pat's son, who is a marine biologist at Florida International University-and who sometimes enlists the aid of his younger brother, Dave, a Kenyon drama graduate, in polishing scripts. "Mike is good at cranking out a high volume of material, and I'd give it sort of an aesthetic overhaul," explains Dave, who graduated in1999.

When the Fox Network decided to produce a one-hour special on the crittercam and Mike needed to test the device on a land animal, he called Ohio and enlisted Beckett, who has been known to enjoy a mysterious romp in the wilds. "He usually returns with some unusual smells about him," says Ray. "We've always wondered where he goes."

After fitting Beckett with the crittercam and testing it with a game of Frisbee, the Heithauses let the dog wander into the woods, where he quickly met another dog. The camera faithfully recorded one of the standard canine social rituals.

Maybe too faithfully. "You don't necessarily want a dog's-eye view when one dog greets another dog," says Dave. "It's too much information, if you know what I mean."

The Fox Network special on crittercams aired in February.