The African Wild Dog

Rare wild dogs give clues to pet behavior


Pat Callahan opened the door into the grotto and the four African wild dogs loped down from the rise at the rear of the enclosure to investigate the keeper and his two companions. Closer they came, eyes intent on the interlopers, large ears ready to scoop up any aberrant sound. They stopped about 10 feet from the visitors and watched for several minutes, curious, alert for any threat.

The tension was too much for the black and gold patchwork canids: they exploded into motion, cruising around and around the grotto in perfect unison, long legs consuming ground in a graceful lope, bodies touching as if attached by Velcro strips. They vocalized as they ran, talking to each other and the world in a rapid, chittery language that reinforces the pack bond that is essential for their survival in the wild.

The foursome of distant dog-relatives lives at the Cincinnati Zoo, in part through the generosity of the Cincinnati Kennel Club. The zoo is involved in an international effort to save the rare canids, which are threatened by habitat loss and disease in their native Africa.

Standing still, Lycaon pictus (painted wolf in Latin), is an unlikely creature; long-legged and slender, with broad skull and hyena-like ears, he looks like an awkward teenage boy, not yet full-grown. But in motion, he is a stunning combination of brilliant color and perfect grace, form and function brought to perfection.

The African wild dog, also known as the Cape hunting dog, is the single species in its genus. It belongs to the family Canidae, the dog family, and thus is a distant cousin of the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) and its precursor, the wolf (Canis lupus). Major differences between Lycaon and Canis is in the teeth and toes; the wild dog has highly specialized shearing teeth and four toes instead of five on its front feet.

At first glance, the painted wolf superficially resembles the hyena, another broad-headed, big-eared, pack-dwelling carnivore; a second look, however, readily discerns major differences in structure that bespeak differences in hunting style and behavior. The hyena is front-heavy, with a stocky, earth-colored body well-camoflaged in its habitat and a small tail; the wild dog is brilliantly colored in black, deep brown, gold, and white, each with a unique pattern. The wild dog tail is relatively large and always tipped with white; it is used much as a domestic dog uses its tail as an indicator of mood. The wild dog stands about 30 inches at the shoulder and weighs 40-80 pounds.

The painted wolf is a coursing hunter, well-suited for its African plains habitat. It lives in small packs of seven to 10 adults for cooperative hunting and raising of pups. The pack may travel a range of several hundred square miles in its search for prey. Research behaviorists Jane Goodall and Hugo Van Lawick once followed a pack that maintained a speed of 30 miles per hour for more than three miles on a hunt.

Just as the family dog may frequently solicit attention from its human pack members, so wild dogs beg attention from the dominant female. Dogs lick their masters faces; wild dogs lick at the mouth of the alpha animal, mimicking juvenile behavior that caused adults in the pack to regurgitate food. Dogs lie on their sides in submission, exposing their bellies for scratching; wild dogs indicate their position in the pack by similar body postures, exposing their throats and genitals to the dominant dog in attempts at appeasement. Pet dogs groom each other, as do wild dogs; at the zoo, the dominant female lay on her side and allowed the others in the pack to lick and nibble her body in a grooming ritual.

Pet dogs indulge in paroxysms of joy when the master comes home; wild dogs greet each other at dawn with leaps and grunts and squeals and tail-wagging, mouth-licking delight. This canid version of a motivational seminar reinforces the pack order and cements the relationship so necessary for success in the hunt and care of the pups. Under normal circumstances, only the dominant male and female breed. If a subordinate female is pregnant, the pack leader may steal or kill her offspring. The pack hunts together; the adults carry food back to the den in their bellies and regurgitate the partially-digested meat for the litter.

The pack structure allows for effective hunting and for enough adults to feed a litter of 10 or more. Young animals may leave the group between two and three years of age; hopefully, the females from one pack meet unrelated males from another pack to form a genetically diverse and viable new family.

After the greeting ceremony, the dogs head out on the daily hunt, a trek that may take them 10 miles or more from their starting point. The hunt is a cooperative affair; the prey depends on the local population of antelope and can include lesser kudu, puku, a variety of gazelles, or wildebeest calves. Some packs are reported to kill zebras or wildebeest adults. The pack chooses a victim and hones in; not even the twists and turns of a fleet gazelle or the frenzied attempts of a wildebeest to protect her calf can escape the determined, hungry dogs. The pack kills the prey quickly, often disemboweling the hapless creature as it runs.

The wild dog's relentless pursuit of its prey and its repulsive method of killing have contributed to its decline in the wild. Bloody death by disemboweling is far more repugnant to people than dispatch by suffocation practiced by the large cats, and so the dogs have been reviled and persecuted. In the 1970s, when Goodall and Van Lawick conducted their studies, about a dozen packs ranged in the Serengeti plains. Ten years later, John Hew Fanshawe and Clare FitzGibbon found a single pack to study in the same area, and that pack wandered over nearly 1000 square miles in its travels.

Distemper and rabies, introduced by domestic dogs, have also taken a toll. Coupled with these diseases is the human encroachment on prime wild dog habitat with settlements and farms. The dogs are driven away by the mere presence of humans in their territory or killed to protect livestock.

About 40-60 wild dogs live in zoos and other facilities in the US. The species qualified for a Species Survival Plan in 1991 and studies are underway to increase its numbers. An SSP plan for an endangered species is similar to a responsible breeder's plan for his kennel. Both aim to avoid perpetrating deleterious traits by carefully selecting breeding pairs and culling any animals that carry genetic anomalies.

Each SSP has a coordinator who keeps the stud book; Bruce Brewer of the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago is the head of the SSP for the African wild dog, and the Cincinnati Zoo pack is part of his plan. The four local dogs are offspring of the same sire, and in the wild, they would have left the pack before becoming of breeding age. To avoid inbreeding of half-brother and sisters in captivity, the females have been implanted with an estrogen capsule to prevent pregnancy. When the SSP identifies an appropriate mate (or mates) for the girls, one or more will probably join the breeding pool. Frequently, the SSP calls for animals to be moved from one facility to another or for reproductive strategies such as semen or embryo collection to enhance the chances of genetic diversity.

Callahan said that the plan may include capturing wild dogs in Africa to diversify the genetics existent in the captive population and that, eventually, wild dogs may be returned to their native habitat.

Meanwhile, you're in for a treat if you visit the cat grottos at the Cincinnati (OH, USA) Zoo. There, next to the Indonesian tigers, is the African wild dog display. Go early and watch the fascinating interaction of these beautiful animals, listen to their chattering, and marvel at the complex behavior patterns that echoes through evolution in our own house pets. You'll be glad you did.

[More on finding a dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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