With their lean, rangy bodies, spotted coats, and huge "Mickey Mouse" ears, African painted dogs are like no other animal on earth — and there aren't many left.
Only 3,000 to 5,000 still roam the plains of sub-Saharan Africa, where once nearly a half-million dogs flourished. Karen Vacco, assistant curator of mammals at the Pittsburgh Zoo, is helping to conserve this now endangered species by raising a close-knit pack of 13 painted dogs. She stands near the fenced yard where the dogs live and play at the zoo, but she can't get too close. These are wild animals. Eight of them are new puppies who emit squeaky yips as she calls them.
"Every morning, there's a huge greeting session," Vacco said. "And the adults will greet the puppies, and everybody greets everybody. And the intensity of the sound is so extreme."
This year's litter is the second successful in-captivity breeding at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Vacco said that what makes the dogs unique is their intensely social interaction.
"Because they are so social and they do rely on each other, they are the most successful carnivore probably in the world," she said. "They actually get a kill one out of three times. So, if they're out there hunting, they're pretty much eating every day, as long as they have the numbers."
Vacco said that in the wild, the dogs cooperate closely to hunt down prey like antelopes and warthogs. They share food and assist those who are weak or sick. And pups are raised by the entire pack. It's this unusual mutual reliance that gave Reverend Brenda Gregg the idea to introduce the dogs to a group of inner-city children.
Gregg is director of Project Destiny, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that helps nurture disadvantaged youth. Gregg believes in connecting children with wildlife and nature. Her group sponsors an annual field trip to Florida, where kids experience environmental issues firsthand. She chose the African painted dogs as a way to connect to Project Destiny's primarily African-American youth, and to teach them about the value of family life.
"They work as a group, they work as a family," said Gregg. "They respect each other. They take care of each other."
Gregg said in Pittsburgh alone, more than 4,000 kids live in foster care. She said that means that many never experience family life — sometimes with major consequences.
"In the city of Pittsburgh, we have had a lot of homicides," Gregg said. "And so we started looking at ways that we may be able to teach children how they interact better with each other. And we've found that the way that the African painted dog does that with their families was the way we wanted to teach our kids that in the inner city."
Last summer, a group of Project Destiny summer camp students took a behind-the-scenes trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo to see the African painted dogs up close. After watching the puppies work together to tear apart a toy, 12-year-old Tyler McGee made it clear he got the message.
"If somebody helps me out, I'll help them out," he said. "And if they want to play football, I'll play football with him. It's like helping each other out. Because if you want respect, you have to show respect."
Project Destiny kids will continue to take weekend trips to watch more dog family life in action.