African Wild Dogs are one of the newest additions to the Reid Park Zoo. If you haven’t seen them yet, they’re easy to find – just to the left of the main plaza as you enter the zoo, and they’re always fun to watch!
These animals are also known as “painted dogs,” and their striking coloration tells you why. Their short fur has a beautiful patchwork of brown, white, red, black, and yellow splotches. Each dog has its own unique pattern, like the stripes on a zebra – a sort of “fingerprint.” They’re slender and about the size of larger domestic dogs – weight, 40-75 pounds; height, 2 to 3 ½ feet; length, 2 ½ to 4 feet. Males and females are similar in size. Their large, rounded ears give them sharp hearing and also help them radiate heat to stay cool in hot climates (the way elephants’ ears do).
African wild dogs are related to your pet dog, if you have one, and to jackals, coyotes, and wolves. They’re often confused with hyenas, but wild dogs and hyenas are not very close on the phylogenetic tree. Wild dogs are closer to wolves and domestic dogs, while hyenas are actually closer to cats and mongooses than to dogs.
African wild dogs are found in fragmented areas of grassland, savannah, and open woodland of the sub-Sahara, mostly in southern Africa and southern portions of east Africa. The social structure and social interactions of these beautiful canines are unusual among carnivores. A pack of wild dogs usually numbers 5-20 animals. A pack typically has both females and males, and the females and males have separate dominance hierarchies. The alpha (dominant) female and the alpha male stay together as a breeding pair, usually monogamous, and this alpha pair normally are the only animals in the pack to breed. Packs wander a lot in the wild, rarely staying in one place for more than a couple of days.
It’s not allergies!
Members of a pack communicate with each other by touch, “sneezing,” and quiet, chirpy vocalizations. African wild dogs show greater cooperation with others in their pack than almost any other social mammal, showing each other what has been described as “a deliberative kindness bordering on altruism.” As in lion prides, for example, wild dog cubs are cared for by the entire pack. They also share food: after a hunt, the hunters regurgitate meat from the hunt to feed pups, sick or old animals, and any others who did not participate in that hunt. And when young animals first join in hunting, the mature animals allow them to feed first.
Masters of pack hunting
Wild dogs are very efficient, cooperative hunters, which is why they’re also known as “hunting dogs.” About 80% of their hunts end with them getting their prey, compared with only about 30% success for lion hunts. Wild dogs can run for miles at 35 miles an hour! They base their hunting strategy on this unusual combination of speed and stamina, simply chasing their intended prey until the prey can run no longer. They usually hunt antelopes, but sometimes go after larger animals like wildebeest or zebras. Near human settlements, wild dogs sometimes prey on livestock, which causes conflict with farmers. Unlike hyenas, wild dogs rarely scavenge.
Members of a pack usually hunt at dawn and at dusk. Wildlife biologists have discovered, though, that the decision about whether and exactly when to undertake a hunt is made by group vote – where a “sneeze” is a vote! – not solely by the alpha male or female in the pack. This is another aspect of this species’ social behavior that is different from other carnivores.
Lots of mouths to feed
The alpha pair in a pack usually mate about once a year, most often between March and June. An average litter has 10-12 pups, but they can have up to 21! In contrast to elephants, lions, and other social species, as wild dogs mature, the males usually stay with their birth pack, and it is the females that usually strike out on their own when they grow up. Wild dogs live for about 10 years in the wild and 2-3 years longer under human care in zoos.
Grommie and her sisters
The Reid Park Zoo’s all-female pack of four sibling African wild dogs arrived from the Oregon Zoo in November, 2020, when they were two years old. The four sisters are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ SSP, or Species Survival Plan. That means that if a genetically appropriate female is needed for breeding, one of the sisters may travel to another accredited zoo and it’s hoped, have one of those huge litters of painted pups!
The Reid Park Zoo packs at first seem identical, but they definitely have separate personalities and even looks. And names: Grommie (short for Grommet), Cricket, Terra (short for Terracotta), and Sandy. It’s a fun challenge to try to tell them apart based on their coloring. Here are some hints to help you. Grommie is dark overall, with a white “U”-shaped mark on her right rear leg and a large white tip on her tail. Cricket has a small, round white patch on the top of her rump and a large white tip on her tail. Sandy has little white overall and only a small bit of white on the tip of her tail, but you might get to see a white “smiley face” marking on her chest. Terra is paler overall and has a large white tip on her tail and a “C”-shaped white mark on the left side of her chest. Got that? Grommie seemed to be the alpha dog when they first arrived at RPZ, but the four regularly test and re-order the dominance hierarchy among themselves. When you visit them in the zoo, see if you can tell which one is dominant.
Survival is not a given
Predators are essential for maintaining a healthy balance among different animal species in a habitat. African wild dogs, a key predator in their habitat, are the second-most endangered carnivore in Africa, after the Ethiopian Wolf. Estimates of the total number in the wild range from about 7,000 down to only 1,400, but everyone agrees that their numbers are very low. In 2012, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified them as Endangered, just two short steps from Extinct in the Wild.
Habitat loss and diseases such as distemper, rabies, and parvovirus carried by domestic dogs jeopardize the remaining wild dog populations. Fragmentation of their habitat causes isolation of small subpopulations of animals, and the resulting inbreeding weakens the species and their chances for survival; the largest subpopulation of wild dogs now consists of fewer than 250 animals. The Reid Park Zoo, the World Wildlife Fund, and other organizations are working to save African wild dogs by mitigating conflict with people and livestock and by creating wildlife corridors to connected parts of their fragmented habitat in Africa.
By the way, if you visited the Reid Park Zoo before 2020, you might recognize the African wild dogs’ habitat as the former home for the Zoo’s tigers. The Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion will have a new, much larger tiger habitat that will allow the Reid Park Zoo to welcome a young breeding pair of tigers, which are only ONE step away from being classified as “Extinct in the Wild.” The difficult but rewarding work of helping to save these species belongs to all of us!