In Defense of African Wild Dogs

I was horrified to learn, this week, that a small boy was killed by a pack of captive African wild dogs (Painted Dogs) at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Horrified for the boy and his family and for the dogs themselves.

I have spent a great deal of time with Painted Dogs and wrote a fictional book based on the life of two young dogs. I would not call myself an expert, but I would suggest that I know more about these dogs than the average person. With that in mind, I have to say:

Don’t Blame The Dogs.

Painted dogs don’t typically attack people. In fact, as you will see in the inset shot, I stood only feet away from one as I snapped its picture.

While I would not encourage you to attempt this yourself, I will say that it has been my experience that Painted dogs are far more afraid of people than we should be of them. In the wild they bolt at the first sign of people and it is only when they are held in captivity, and therefore get used to people, that their fear goes away.

It is also worth mentioning that they are the second most endangered carnivore in Africa  — something that has come about as a result of a number of human influences, not the least of which included our outright attempt to exterminate them.

Wild dogs are gorgeous creatures with amazing ‘painted patterns’ that are never repeated on any two dogs. They are wonderfully social and powerfully cooperative. They are outstanding parents and very community oriented. They are magical to watch and learn about.

So why did they attack the boy? First of all, ‘why’ is never going to make anyone feel better about this. I feel for the friends and family that have felt this attack so personally. As a parent, I can only barely imagine the pain his parents are experiencing at this point. It is also my sincere hope that they do not misguidedly aim their anger and anguish at wild dogs.

I am reminded of a shark attack victim — a surfer — who campaigned heavily against the hunting down and killing of the shark that attacked him. In his view, he was in the shark’s space; he viewed surfing in those waters as a measured risk and not something to blame the shark for.

In the same vein, I have often joked with my good friend, Van Rooi, a guide in the Kruger National Park, that if we, while walking through the park, were charged or attacked by an animal, that I would rather he use his gun to shoot me than to shoot the animal.

The dogs are not held captive in the Pittsburgh zoo because they want to be. They did not evolve to live in a small enclosures and be in close proximity to people day in and day out. It is no surprise to me that their behavior was abnormal because everything about their life is abnormal.