SOUTH BEND ― The Potawatomi Zoo is building a reputation in worldwide efforts to preserve some of the most rare and endangered animal species.
Its latest accomplishment was the birth of African painted dogs that were born Sept. 28 and could possibly be seen by the public ― weather permitting ― during the Winter Days events early next year.
“With the recent announcement by the Oklahoma City Zoo, we’re the first zoos in America to have painted dog puppies in three years, said Josh Sisk, the zoo’s executive director, pointing out that the zoo will post regular updates on its Facebook page.
But until Wednesday, news of the births at the Potawatomi Zoo was kept under wraps because officials were concerned the litter of eight newborns might not survive, as they were being rejected by their mother Bleu, their father Maurice, and their aunt Colby.
“We knew within 24 hours that we had to separate them,” Sisk said, pointing out that personnel here worked closely with African Painted Dog Species Survival Plan experts at the Cincinnati Zoo through the use of video monitors and constant phone calls.
After it became apparent the pups were at risk, zoo officials decided to separate the surviving five pups from the adults. But even that posed risks for zookeepers as well as the newborns, because painted dogs can actually be quite aggressive, similar to a pack of wild coyotes.
“You can’t just run in and grab them,” Sisk said.
Experts also advised zoo personnel to find a golden retriever or labrador retriever with a litter of pups who might be used as a surrogate for Bleu, who wasn’t interested in her litter. With help from the Indiana Council for Animal Welfare, it took only a few hours for the zoo to connect with the family of a golden retriever named Kassy who had a new litter of puppies and milk to share.
Because it’s important for painted dog pups to be raised in a canine social structure, experts recommended finding a surrogate domestic dog to nurse the pups instead of bottle-feeding them, according to the zoo.
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Kassy and her puppies arrived at the zoo the day after the painted dog puppies were born, and she immediately accepted them as her own, nursing and caring for them, according to the zoo. Over the next four weeks, the zoo’s veterinarian, general curator and animal care team worked around the clock to ensure all of the puppies, including the golden retrievers, were getting enough food and time with Kassy.
“It was a crazy first month,” Sisk said. “Our team was there for four weeks 24/7. We had a mattress next to the dogs.”
But even with the attention of Kassy and the zoo staff, two additional painted dog puppies weren’t strong enough to survive, according to the zoo. “This is one of the most challenging breeding programs in zoos,” said Sisk, adding that there was a painted dog litter at the zoo last year that also didn’t survive.
In the wild, African painted dogs live in large packs with unique social dynamics and vocalizations, according to the zoo. The success of a litter depends on the entire pack, as all adult dogs help to feed and raise the pups. The success of the birth and the likelihood of raising live puppies can be jeopardized if the pack doesn’t work together as they should.
The unnamed painted dog pups are currently identified as Blue, Red, and Orange for the colors the zoo staff has used to track them since birth, and all of them are male.
Though the original recommendation was for the painted dog pups to reintegrate with Bleu, Maurice and Colby, the adults haven’t displayed positive interest in the puppies so far, so the plan has been changed. Right now, the zoo is working to build a home for the pups next to the adults so they can learn how to behave like painted dogs, according to the zoo.
Once the pups are older, they can either be integrated with the Potawatomi Zoo pack or moved to another AZA-accredited facility where they will hopefully raise families of their own, the zoo said in a release.
“This has been such an emotional roller coaster for the entire staff,” Sisk said. “But through a lot of hard work and attention, we have three healthy pups that should hopefully contribute to the survival of painted dogs.”
African painted dogs, also known as African wild dogs, Cape hunting dogs, or African painted wolves, are a unique canid species native to sub-Saharan Africa. There are fewer than 7,000 adult painted dogs in the wild. Their overall population is declining, and they are considered endangered because of human-wildlife conflict, habitat fragmentation, and disease, according to the zoo.
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Sisk said the effort also shows the ongoing development of the Potawatomi Zoo, not just as a destination but as a growing partner in the effort to help save rare and endangered species such as Sichuan takins, Chicoan peccaries, kudus, sloths and many other animals.
“The breeding programs are trusting our abilities, and we’re getting more breeding opportunities,” said Sisk, pointing out that the zoo was recently entrusted with a female giraffe with hopes it will eventually produce offspring. “We’ve had more babies born here the past two years than we’ve had in any two-year period in the zoo’s history.”