Stephanie Carnow, WCN’s Director of Marketing and Communications, spent a week with Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) in July, 2019. While exploring PDC’s projects, Stephanie had multiple encounters with the same painted dog pack. She observed how those dogs coped with an injured pack member and how PDC responded to the situation.
I was fiddling with my camera and momentarily distracted when the kids started shouting. I was on a safari drive with a group of eleven-year-olds from Painted Dog Conservation’s (PDC) Bush Camp, winding through Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. The kids shouted whenever we passed something exciting, so I quickly looked up. All day we applauded animals like they were red-carpet celebrities and though we saw many A-list stars—elephants, giraffes, zebra—above all else, we longed to see painted dogs. At last, peeking up from a field of thigh-high grasses, were the unmistakable Mickey Mouse ears of a painted dog. The kids cheered while I, like a pushy paparazzo, pointed my camera and hit record.
There were actually two dogs standing side-by-side with a third walking towards them. When I played the video later, I noticed one dog had some kind of injury near its hind legs. The following day, I returned to Hwange to track painted dogs with PDC’s chief tracker, Jealous Mpofu. Watching my video, Jealous identified the dog (Browny) from his coat pattern and his pack (the Destiny Pack), but not the injury. For that, we had to find Browny.
PDC had outfitted Browny with a VHF tracking collar, but VHF cannot pinpoint exact locations. To find dog packs, Jealous relies on his expertise and intimate knowledge of the dogs. He strategically surveys the park, checking for dog tracks along the roads, until locating a VHF signal. We listened intently for the VHF receiver to beep, and when it did, we followed the signal like breadcrumbs. We had found the Destiny Pack. Except now, we didn’t see Browny.
With only three dogs—Lucy, Lily, and Browny —the Destiny Pack is much smaller than they once were. Over the years, the pack lost dogs to lion fights and wire bushmeat snares. Entire litters of pups didn’t survive. Painted dogs survive as a group, hunting together and raising pups collectively, the loss of one can unravel an entire pack. As a trio, the Destiny Pack is fragile, it could collapse if Browny succumbed to an injury.
We watched as Lucy and Lily gnawed at the remains of an antelope until leaving it in a heap beneath a tree and trotting into the forest. But they returned quickly, leading a slow-moving Browny to the antelope. It’s a defining characteristic that painted dogs care for their sick and injured, Lucy and Lily were feeding Browny when he wasn’t able to feed himself.
Now close up, we could see Browny’s injury was a cringe-worthy wound on his right testicle. If untreated, it could be fatal. Luckily, PDC is adept at handling these situations. They routinely extricate dogs from deadly wire snares (the dogs’ biggest threat in Hwange) and treat everything from broken legs to gaping wounds.
PDC was able to dart Browny (to sedate him) and a veterinarian performed surgery on him. This would have been relatively simple in a veterinary clinic, but out in the bush, using headlamps for light and with lions close at hand, it was dramatic. Fortunately, painted dogs are resilient, frequently surviving the most horrific injuries, Browny should have no problem recovering.
For painted dogs, survival of the group can hinge on an individual. Because of this the dogs protect one another with fierce loyalty. It’s also why PDC’s intervention saved not only Browny’s life, but the entire Destiny Pack.