Earlier this year, the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka had its first litter of African painted dog puppies, giving researchers a chance to compare how they develop in captivity versus the wild.
Over several decades, people in countries like Botswana and Zimbabwe have killed African painted dogs for preying on livestock and out of fear of them. The species is sometimes nicknamed “devil dogs.” Less than 5,000 members of the endangered species roams in sub-Saharan Africa.
Researchers in the U.S. and Zimbabwe have been trying to breed the dogs and study their behaviors to understand how to raise their populations. Conservationists have noticed differences in appearances between captive and wild populations, said Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the Endangered Wolf Center.
“Their leg lengths and facial features are different from the captive to the wild, and we’re researching why that is,” Mossotti said.
Scientists suspect that’s because captive and wild dogs have different feeding habits. At the Endangered Wolf Center, the caretakers typically increase the amount of food given to the animals as they grow. However, researchers have noticed that the adults feed their young a large amount of food early in life.
“Just like we have teenage boys that need so much food at a certain period of their life, these guys are like that,” Mossotti said. “They have those big growth spurts, and they need that food to be able to have their bones grow.”
Conservationists also want to determine how the presence of humans interferes with the dogs’ feeding habits. It’s possible the dogs eat less when people are around, said Tammy Cloutier, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental studies at Antioch University New England.
“Humans are out and about during a game drive, and they happen to come across a den, because who doesn’t want to see super cute painted dog puppies? The adults may decide not to forage at that time, so they may actually miss a meal, which means the pups also miss a meal,” Cloutier said.
The center has had African painted dogs since 2003. There were 23 puppies, born four months ago from two mothers that mated with the same male. The carnivorous dogs have distinctive coats that show splotches of brown, black, white and yellow colors. The staff at the Endangered Wolf Center can tell the puppies apart, since each one has different patterns — like a fingerprint, Mossotti said.
The center works with world-renowned painted dog scientist Greg Rasmussen, who has studied the species for more than 30 years. The biologist, based in Zimbabwe, visited the Endangered Wolf Center this week to see the puppies.
“My mission is not just to secure the dogs, but to secure the people who are going to look after those populations, those young graduate students, getting them inspired and getting them into conservation, knowing full well that when my day is done, I’ve got someone to wear my shoes,” Rasmussen said.
“The dog is my flag on the mountain to say, 'If we can keep that sucker alive, the mountain will survive, too,'” he added.
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