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Dogs trained to detect human remains begin search for lost cemetery at MacDill

Shiraz is one of four dogs sniffing for clues. Historians and archaeologists also are trying to find the burial ground, Port Tampa Cemetery for African Americans.
Suzi Goodhope of Havana, Fla., and Shiraz, an 11-year-old Belgian Malinois, are helping in the search for an African American cemetery forgotten somewhere on the grounds of MacDill Air Force Base. Goodhope trains human-remains detection dogs in Havana, Fla. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

TAMPA — Shiraz is good at her job.

A human-remains detection dog, Shiraz once found a 1,300-year-old pinkie toe bone buried more than three feet deep in a Native American oyster shell midden in the Florida Panhandle.

Now, she’s taking her nine years of experience to MacDill Air Force Base, where she and three other dogs are helping archaeologists search for the Port Tampa Cemetery for African Americans.

The early-20th century burial ground was on the land near the corner of Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue. It disappeared around the time the base opened in 1941. There are no known records of the bodies being moved.

Related: Records show a black cemetery might lie beneath MacDill Air Force Base

“Dogs’ ability to smell is incredible,” Suzi Goodhope, Shiraz’ handler, said at a news conference on the base on Tuesday.

“When you come home and smell spaghetti, you say, ‘Oh, we’re having spaghetti.’ The dog, however, says, ‘Oh, there’s tomato, there’s onions, too much garlic."

Shiraz is an 11-year-old Belgian Malinois, tan with a salt and pepper face and named for the red wine. Goodhope is an instructor based out of Havana, Fla., whose dogs sniff for more than 400 decomposition-related compounds that emanate from human remains, regardless of how old the compounds may be.

Port Tampa Cemetery burials began in the early 1900s. It is unclear how big the cemetery was or how many people were buried there.

Related: A judge’s ancestor was buried in cemetery that may be at MacDill Air Force Base

From death records, the Tampa Bay Times has so far identified 69 people buried in Port Tampa Cemetery from 1902-1933.

This week, the dogs will survey 26 acres of largely vacant property.

The work is designed to “identify high probability locations for the cemetery," said Paige Dobbins of the private archaeology firm hired by MacDill — Stone Mountain, Ga.-based New South Associates.

A report on Tampa cemeteries issued in 1941 by the federal Works Progress Administration provides directions to the MacDill burial ground: Start at the corner of Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue, head south 884 feet, turn east and go 1,327 feet.

Someone slipped an essential piece of outdoors gear on Shiraz, a human-remains detection dog brought in to search for signs of a lost African Cemetery on the grounds of MacDill Air Force Base. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Related: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

Still, New South Associates are looking deeper. Historians are seeking deeds that might mention the cemetery’s size and location and archaeologists are walking the property looking for grave markers.

In an African American cemetery of that age, markers could include traditional headstones but also decorated plates and “drinking vessels and shells and these beautiful meaningful items," Dobbins said.

Once a location is narrowed down, archeologists will roll the property with ground-penetrating radar that can detect graves.

Related: Racial tension was high at MacDill in ’40s when a black cemetery disappeared

Each human-remains detection dog has its own way of letting handlers know it found something. Some bark. Others sit.

Shiraz “slows down, takes deep breaths” and lies down, Goodhope said.

But first, a dog first needs to hear a command phrase to begin the search.

What’s the phrase she uses with Shiraz?

With a laugh, Goodhope said, “Find Hoffa.”

Shelly White, a field archaeologist with New South Associates, plays around with Shiraz as the search gets underway for a forgotten African American cemetery on the grounds of MacDill Air Force Base. New South is based in Stone Mountain, Ga. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]