The Illustrated African Wild Dog Story

As you know if you’ve been following the blog, 1/2 the folks who went to Kenya continued on to Botswana. We all knew that seeing Wild Dogs wasn’t a guarantee, but we had high hopes because we were going where and when our chances were highest. (And no, in response to one comment, there are no [African] Wild Dogs in the states, we’re talking another species here, see photos below.) We stayed at Chitabe Camp in the Okavango Delta, owned and run by Helene Heldring and David Hamman, and very close to the research station of Tico McNutt, who has been studied AWDs for over twenty years. We knew that he had radio collars on most of the packs in the area, and we knew that it was still denning season, meaning that the adults tended to stay put more than usual. Still, as an experienced naturalist told us “Seeing AWDs is a gift you can never count on.”

Finding the dogs turned out to be the adventure of a life time. First off, 7 of us got split off from the rest, missed our plane and arrived 1 and a half days late. (Actually barely made it, bush plane couldn’t land in the dark and we and our luggage were literally thrown from one plane to the next in Maun with only minutes to spare.) The six of the group that made it on time (Barbara, Barb, Lisa, Jane, Debbie & Pam) spent 4 hours the first afternoon and 14 hours (really) the next day looking for the dogs. One of the pack was radio-collared, but you have to be within 2 km to get a signal, and the dogs had moved from their usual area because of floods earlier in the year. They finally found them late in the afternoon of the 2nd day, about two hours drive from our tent camp.

Re-united, we all (with a few exhausted exceptions) took off at 6:30 the next morning, driving back to the area where the dogs had been seen.  First we drove about an hour and half on what we would call a track and Botswanans call a road. A plane had been circling overhead looking as well, and the pilot found the dogs and radio’ed in coordinates. After approaching the area, we left the sandy rutted track and began driving ‘off road,’ which included driving not through a woods of Mopane trees, but over them. Imagine driving toward a 12 foot tall tree, with 3 or 4 three inch wide trunks, and simply driving into it and over it. Absurdly, the trees pop back up like cartoon figures, and the damage to the area is minimal. Still, the camp and researchers only go off road when they are doing research and have no choice.

Here’s Tico holding up the antenna, looking for a signal from the collared dog:

After about 45 minutes, Tico said “There!” And there they were. First we saw an adult, and then immediately came upon this scene:

The photo is a bit fuzzy,  my apologies.  The light was a bit low, but mostly I was shaking with excitement. The 12-14 pups (we were never totally sure) were seeing a vehicle for the 2nd time only in their life, and they immediately took off after this photo was taken. Unfortunately, the pups had just developed to the point in which they no longer dashed down into the den when they were frightened. That meant that instead of staying still, the pups ran off and the adults had no choice but to run after them. We followed slowly through (and over) the thick, brushy woods, stopping often to avoid scaring the pups, Tico always holding up the antenna to keep our electronic connection with them.

Lucky for us and for Tico, who wanted to radio collar another member of the pack, the pack stopped after about 30-45 minutes, and we were able to stop close by and watch them while Tico prepared to place a radio collar on another individual. (He always tries to keep 2 members of the pack collared, since mortality is high and losing a radio collared pack member means losing the pack.)

We all sat breathless as Tico prepared the tranquilizer and dart gun, and groaned as a group when his first shot was lifted by a puff of wind and landed in the sand. He prepared another, seconds counting down, and this time the dart bounced off the hip of the female he was targeting. More groans all around. However, it might have been a blessing, because he had wanted to collar “Jones,” the breeding male and had decided against him because he didn’t look settled enough to get close to. (I think that was the most fun I had on the entire trip… realizing that I too had concluded that Jones wouldn’t stay still if we drove close: even though he was lying down, he had never turned his head toward us, although we were only 30 feet away. I loved being able to transfer reading a domestic dog to reading an African Wild Dog!)

After the second darting attempt, Jones looked more settled, so we slowly approached him (in our vehicle), Tico raised the dart gun one more time, we again held our breaths and this time the dart flew straight and true, into Jones’ thigh muscle (only safe target). Jones lept up, ran 10 feet away, and then circled around for a few minutes, lying down conveniently in the shade. Tico and driver BeBe then took measurements and collared Jones, and eventually we all were allowed to come down and see Jones close up, pet his stiff fur and look at his two horrendously infected teeth. Ouch.

Here’s Erin getting a once in a lifetime encounter with one of the world’s most endangered species:

And here’s Tico giving Jones the andidote, after about 40 minutes of data collection and collaring:

We stayed with Jones until he was well up and recovering. I asked Tico if there were ever challenges to a dog’s social status if it returned to the pack a bit woozy, but he said he’d never seen a sign of it. He had worried about that very thing his first year of research, and actually removed the dog from the pack for a day to avoid a power shift. Eventually he found that to be unnecessary, and has not seen any problems in all the subsequent years he’s collared dogs.

This post is getting a bit, uh, lengthy, so I’ll postpone talking about comparative AWD/Wolf/Coyote/Dog behavior til later (if you’re interested… or is this getting boring?  let me know, truly!).

Last comments: Someone with the improbable name of Tico McNutt (I mean, really!) can be one of the most inspiring, dedicated, knowledgeable and kind people imaginable. He has three graduate students working with him now, and has spent over twenty years working with the highly endangered wild dogs. I don’t doubt that he is one of the reasons that dogs are holding their own in Botswana now. And Chitabe Camp is without question one of the most amazing places on earth. The tents are gorgeous inside (complete with blow ups of David’s astounding photographs over your comfy bed), baboons play on the roofs of the tents outside, the entire place is brilliantly run and profoundly eco-sensitive. I said this was my last trip to Africa, and it probably is, but if anything pulled me back it would be the AWD research and Chitabe Camp.

Here’s one more photo of the dogs (sorry, I just can’t resist):

Why Grandma, what big ears you have!

Meanwhile, back at the farm: No photos yet, but it is green and lush and cool and I feel like I’ve fallen into an emerald. Lassie and Willie and Sushi are wonderful, two of my ewes are struggling with a still unknown disease, the lambs are thriving and the grass is bountiful. Oh my it is good to be home!


  1. Sharon says

    Welcome home! What an amazing trip – thanks for sharing it with us. And no, please don’t worry that you are boring us – if your other readers are like me, we are reading to learn from you, so bring on the detailed exposition! (And those who aren’t interested can just skip to the bottom of the post, where we always know to look for one last great picture!)
    And I love the last picture here – except for those amazing ears, that could almost be a GSD/bully mix, so alert and intelligent, couldn’t it? How interesting it must have been to talk “dogs” with Tico (love the name!) and to see your understanding crosses over into the AWDs as well.
    I bet your own dogs are glad to see you home!

  2. Lil says

    Welcome home! Thank you for sharing your adventures with us. It’s anything but boring… I’m looking forward to the next installment!

  3. nan says

    even to see these photographs feels like a rare and wonderful privilege, how extraordinary to have the chance to see these dogs in person. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  4. Ignacio says

    Very cool stuff! Would definitely love to read more about AWD/Wolf/Coyote/Dog behavior comparisons.

  5. says

    Glad to hear you made it back safely! Can’t wait to hear and see (please post lots of photos!) all of the adventures of your trip!

  6. kim g says

    wow im speechless. what a great trip. just a thought patricia, ever think about going on twitter. it would be great. think about it.

  7. says

    There might not be any in the US, but there are some in Canada — Mountain View Conservation in Langley, BC, Canada works with the Painted Dog Conservation society in Zimbabwe. :)

  8. JJ says

    I’m totally fascinated by all this stuff and will happily read as much as you are willing to write. Bring it on!!

    The photos are AMAZING!

    My confusion (which may be dumb and not worth answering) is this: My understanding is that a dog is a domesticated/junevated (word?) wolf. So, isn’t it a bit of a contradiction in terms to talk about a “wild” dog? When by definition a dog is not wild? (Where I understand wild is the opposite of domesticated.) Now, I know that people often mean “wild” in the sense of “not tame”/not nice to humans. So, if you are using “wild” in that sense, then why would say that this group is a different breed than anything in the US?

    The only thing I can come up with is this: I used to own pet ferrets. These were the biologically domesticated ferret kind. Also in the US is the American Blackfooted Ferret. These B-Ferrets are endangered. My understanding is that even though both groups have the same name, “ferret”, they are actually a different species. They can not mate with each other and it is not believed that the pet ferrets are descended from the American Blackfooted Ferrets.

    So, I was thinking that when you referred to these AWDs, maybe it was like the same thing? Maybe they are more like coyotes or something very different and not in the wolf-dog continuum? Even though they have the same name, “dog”?

    That’s probably enough description to explain my confusion.

    Thanks for all the blog posts. I wanted to go on this trip so badly, but I just couldn’t make it work. Reading your blog posts will just have to get me by. :-)

  9. LynnSusan says

    Welcome home, Trisha!
    Boring? Are you kidding?
    This is fascinating stuff for a dog geek like me!
    Thank you so much for letting me drink this in, and live vicariously for a little while.

    Please, ma’am, may I have some more?

  10. says

    What a fascinating read. I’ve been with a lioness who was darted (to remove porcupine quills from her face) and the other lions tried to get very aggressive towards her until she was through the woozy state and strong again. We had to chase the others away, which was quite a scary experience as we were on foot!! Chitebe sounds like a camp well worth a visit and I’m putting it on my list of places I must visit. Thanks and I look forward to further reads.

  11. Nicola says

    No matter how wonderful a trip, it is always lovely to be back home!
    I never get tired of reading about dog/AFD/wolf etc behaviour – it can be so alike, yet so different. I had a couple of dingos in a local obedience club class for a while, and they definitely behaved differently to the “domestic” dogs. I just wish I knew then what I know now – I could have learnt so much more (or perhaps I would have been too worried to take the class!)

    Does the camp ever treat problems like Jones’ infected teeth while the dogs are sedated? I know it might interfere with the natural order of things, but it would seem worth while since the AFD is highly endangered.

  12. Emily says

    Wow, that sounds amazing! I’m so happy for you!

    And yes, I’d be extremely interested in “comparative AWD/Wolf/Coyote/Dog behavior”.

  13. Jess says

    More PLEASE!!!! I would have loved to have gone on this trip so the next best thing is reading about it! Glad you’re home safe again and thank you so much for sharing!

  14. Rigel Morgan says

    PMC this is way off topic but I just had to say Thanks. Today a foster dog who had been with me for a year had a huge behavioral breakthrough – initiating play with a bow and a light bark with two different dogs. When she came to us she was so dog aggresive we thought she truly might not be adoptable. It was your training methods and lots of patience that brought her to this wonderful place.

  15. Alexandra says

    It wasn’t boring at all; quite interesting in fact. I’d love to hear your comments on comparitive AWD/wolf/coyote/dog behavior.

  16. Liza Lundell says

    More, please more!!! Couldn’t swing the trip this year, maybe later. I’m saving my pennies…. Not easy when I had to buy Tico’s book! But it was sooo worth it. The AWDs are fascinating. Where do they fit in the dog/wolf/coyote/etc. matrix? Do they interbreed with domestics? Can they?

  17. Barb Maja, CPDT-KA says

    This brought me to tears – how lucky you all are to have witnessed such a beautiful site. They are truly gorgeous and I will now start saving so maybe one day I can go too – when the kids are moved out LOL. Please do tell us more – I didn’t want the story to end.

  18. Trisha says

    Thanks so much for the welcome homes and the encouragement. I will write about comparative canine behavior soon, a great topic to think about and great fun to work on. One of the things I cherish about my academic training in ethology especially is its emphasis on comparative behavior: it gives you an overview and perspective that you don’t get looking at one animal at a time. I’ll answer question about AWDs in that post (and have emails out to Tico and Helene about whether they ever interbreed w/ domestic dogs, as do wolves and coyotes sometimes…). AWDs are completely different species than domestic dogs (who are now actually deemed to be the same species as wolves, just different sub species), but so are coyotes and they occ’ly interbreed.

  19. Liz F. says

    Happy for your opportunities to apply your training unconventionally (reading Jones), and overall for the whole African Experience. Very cool.
    Look forward to hearing more sometime.

  20. Trisha says

    I hope my recent post on Comparative Canid Behavior cleared up the understandable confusion about the taxonomy of African Wild Dogs. Calling this species ‘dogs,’ and all the miscommunication it creates, is a perfect example of why scientists always use latin names. They are no more related to domestic dogs than are foxes as best we can tell (tho I do wonder if the new DNA tests have found out anything new, anyone know?) but the common name makes things confusing. I’m tearing my hair out because of common names now: I’m working on a Species List for the group that went to Africa, and many of the animals seen were identified by a common name. But when I go to look them up, there’s no such name in the field guide. A driver/guide in Kenya might have said that we saw the Grumpy Wrinkled-Faced Sheet Stealer for example, but the guides only list the Grumpy Sheet Stealer and the Red-faced Sheet Stealer or the Wrinkled Brow Sheet Stealer…. so which is it?
    So remember, if you’re dealing with a sheet-stealer, always get the latin name……!

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