Sister Act

African wild dog pack

Siblings Sahara, Lulu, Ola and Ono patrol their outdoor yard at Regenstein African Journey. (Photo courtesy of Mando Tejada)

The Zoo’s Female African Wild Dog Pack Settles into its New Home

The dog days of summer arrived early at Lincoln Park Zoo. A new pack of four African wild dogs was introduced to the public May 30 after moving into an exhibit space with a woodsy outdoor yard on the south end of Regenstein African Journey (RAJ).

In the days since, the curious arrivals have comfortably settled into their new surroundings and daily care regimens provided by animal care staff. The species is managed by the African Wild Dog Species Survival Plan® (SSP), a cooperative initiative among zoos to protect this highly endangered predator, whose wild population has been decimated by hunting, habitat loss and disease spread by humans and domestic dogs.

The four sisters, named Sahara, Lulu, Ola and Ono, were born on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2010, at Brookfield Zoo, where they were part of a litter of 10 pups. (Their six siblings are males.) Their relocation reflects shifting family dynamics common in the wild. Although wild dogs are highly social carnivores with complex hierarchies, it’s natural for packs to periodically fragment as females and males splinter off to form or join new packs.

“They’re very young, so they’re energetic and get along well, but they do live in a hierarchy. So the question was, would that change in a new setting?” says Curator of Mammals Mark Kamhout. “So far, there don’t appear to be any big changes, but hierarchies can be very fluid. That seems to be the case here.”

African wild dog

Pack member Ola is attentive to her surroundings. African wild dogs have individually unique mottled coats; lean physiques for speed and endurance; and large ears that help with pack communication, prey detection and heat dissipation. (Photo courtesy of Mando Tejada)

Females are dominant in the matriarchal society of Lycaon pictus (Latin for “painted wolf”) throughout the species’ native savanna ranges in eastern and southern Africa. The fierce competition for breeding rights among packs’ female members won’t arise at Lincoln Park Zoo, however, where there are no plans to introduce the siblings to males at this time. “Mom bred very well, so their genetics are well represented,” says Kamhout.

Kamhout and RAJ staff have been busy enough acclimating the pack to life at Lincoln Park Zoo. The dogs are fed a specially formulated diet of vitamin- and mineral-enriched ground cattle meat twice daily. They receive enrichment in the form of cattle bones, cardboard boxes they can shred to pieces and various natural items with scents that engage their powerful sense of smell. The pack’s members have no problem keeping themselves interested, though. “The best enrichment you can give an African wild dog is another African wild dog,” says Kamhout.

“They eat together in the wild, so the SSP recommends the same here,” he adds. As such, the sisters have displayed a calm solidarity, although RAJ staff have detected subtle hierarchical nuances.

“Sahara seems dominant, but Ola and Ono will tag-team the other two—little nips and bites, but we’re not seeing aggression. They’re very playful,” says Kamhout. “Lulu might be on the bottom, but we can’t tell because they eat together. They’re also less vocal than our previous male pack, which may be an indication their hierarchy is well established.”

The sisters have busily explored their exhibit, which features thick foliage, rocky outcroppings and a small watering hole. Zoo visitors, however, won’t always witness such activity. Frequent naps are usually on the day’s agenda as well.

The pack’s comfort in its new home means keepers have also been able to initiate operant conditioning sessions with its members. Training the dogs to present paws, open mouths and stand on scales helps keepers monitor their health and well-being.

Those naps can come to an abrupt end, of course, when the sisters spot their next-door neighbor across an adjoining wall in her outdoor exhibit.

“They can see Lily, and they do get excited,” says Kamhout of the zoo’s red river hog, which also arrived at RAJ this spring. “Believe it or not, though, Lily doesn’t really care.”

by Craig Keller • Published June 26, 2012

When They Were Pups

Baby Pictures
Brookfield Zoo, where our African wild dogs were born, documented the pups' arrival in 2010. The video included here shows one of our female dogs receiving a routine medical exam as a puppy.