Starting in 2017, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden partnered with the Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT) to support its efforts to conserve the endangered African painted dog. Dr. Greg Rasmussen, PDRT founder and executive director, has worked for almost two decades protecting and studying the species, with populations totaling fewer than 7,000 in the wild.
An essential part of the Zoo’s ongoing commitment to the PDRT includes sending staff members to Zimbabwe annually to assist the PDRT with its conservation initiatives. This provides Zoo professionals with the opportunity to contribute their knowledge and skillsets to a global conservation organization, while also gaining on-the-ground field experience.
This year, the Zoo selected Director of Veterinary Services Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, and Social Media Content Coordinator Sabrina Heise to embark on this conservation journey of a lifetime.
They shared their personal reflections from their time assisting the PDRT in Zimbabwe – starting with Social Media Content Coordinator Sabrina Heise:
When I learned that I was going to Zimbabwe, I was in utter shock, especially considering that my background is not in animal care or education – unlike my colleagues who went before me. However, I was confident that I could contribute a different set of skills that could potentially outlast the two weeks I would spend in Africa. My passion has always been wildlife conservation, and so the reality of making the journey to help the PDRT in a whole new way, was a dream come true.
Social media is an essential tool for every conservation organization. When used consistently and effectively, it can inspire change, raise awareness and generate global support. To ensure that PDRT wasn’t lost in a sea of worthy causes, it was important to Dr. Rasmussen to strengthen his organization’s presence on social media.
Prior to my journey, I asked the PDRT team if anything was needed, technology wise. The response I received was a request for two iPads that could be used not only for social media purposes, but also in association with their research and education initiatives. After hearing back, I immediately set out to raise enough funds to purchase the iPads for the organization, and thanks to my supportive family, friends and coworkers – the goal was reached in less than two weeks. So, with iPads-in-hand, I prepared for an adventure I knew I’d never forget.
Having never traveled internationally before, the time I spent in Zimbabwe was a new and truly out-of-this-world experience. From the moment we stepped off the plane, I was in complete awe of everything I witnessed – herds of goats, donkeys and cattle walking along the road, crowds of children walking home long distances from school and so many smiling, welcoming faces – to name a few. I came to the conclusion early on that while Zimbabwe was unlike anything I’d ever seen; it was easily going to become the best place I’d ever been, and spoiler alert - it did.
When we arrived at the PDRT base and settled in, we hit the ground running. Within the first two days, I presented my social strategy plan, taught the team how to utilize the iPads and began gathering images for the PDRT to use for social media and website purposes in the future.
Photo: Jennifer D'Agostino
Then, a few days later, we left the base to spend three nights out in the bush – hoping to locate painted dogs. While there, we took part in the team’s traffic research study. See, Zimbabwe has an extreme lack of speed limit signs, making it incredibly dangerous for wildlife to cross the road. Dr. Rasmussen is determined to change this one sign at a time and by collecting data to prove that stricter regulations are crucial to ensure that the death of wildlife, including painted dogs, does not continue.
When one thinks of Africa, they immediately think of all of the wildlife that inhabit it. However, when you are in the thick of it – you learn that the wildlife isn’t so easy to find. With habitat loss being so prevalent, you learn quickly that wildlife conservation and research takes dedication, patience, strength and passion. And because painted dogs are an endangered species, they are even more difficult to locate. That is why Dr. Rasmussen’s work conserving painted dogs for over two decades is such an inspiration.
Thankfully, while in the field – we did see wildlife in occasional bursts along the roads leading to our campsite.
This included red-billed hornbills, baboons, Angolan giraffes, three herds of African elephants and many more diverse species – the insects being the most unique, in my opinion. We even heard two prides of lions communicating on either sides of us one morning, while gathered around the campfire. The best sighting of all, however, was one we hoped for but never expected.
As part of his conservation work, Dr. Rasmussen monitors several packs of painted dogs via camera traps. As part of his regular observations, he noticed that one pack in particular, was really struggling. This pack of five included an alpha female (Anne) with five pups, and every individual was starving – unable to feed themselves. So, while in the field, Dr. Rasmussen made the decision to move forward with a supplementary feed (a first time for PDRT) working with officials to acquire a carcass that could help the pack gain the energy needed to care for themselves and the pups.
Thus began Operation Anne, an effort Dr. D’Agostino and I took part in – one that resulted in us both seeing a painted dog before our eyes, seeing Anne. I documented every moment of Operation Anne, which started with a team of six carrying the carcass and tying it to a tree, near the den site. To ensure the pack found it, a meat trail needed to be laid out from the den to the carcass itself. So, Dr. D’Agostino, Dr. Rasmussen’s field assistant, MK, and I walked to the den as quietly as possible. As we neared the den site, we heard an abrupt alarm call and right in front of us was Anne, guarding her den and warning us to stay away.
After she ran off, MK finished laying out the meat and we walked back quickly, while playing painted dog twitters on the iPad to spark the curiosity of the pack. Thankfully, that evening, they found the carcass and fed – a huge success for Dr. Rasmussen and his team. It was an exciting, hopeful result for everyone involved.
We then returned to the PDRT base where I began assembling a two-part video story about the successful operation, which have both been shared on PDRT’s Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages.
This experience was both life-changing and humbling. I learned so much about culture, conservation, community and sustainable living. I was thankful to be provided the opportunity to make a true difference for an endangered species and to work alongside so many amazing conservationists. Gifting the iPads and seeing them in use in the field and in an education setting was more exciting than I could’ve hoped for.
It was wonderful to visit a local secondary school in Zimbabwe and interact with the students while we were there, too. Those I met were an absolute joy to talk to. Strong, resourceful, positive and intelligent are all words I’d use to describe them.
I was privileged to be entrusted to share the story of Operation Anne, and I look forward to seeing what the PDRT continues to accomplish as they begin sharing more on their social media pages. Lastly, I’m so grateful to the OKC Zoo for choosing me to go on this journey.
Photo: Jennifer D'Agostino
I encourage you all to follow PDRT on their Instagram and Facebook for amazing photos, videos, updates and success stories. The team is consistently working toward a brighter future for painted dogs, and it was an absolute honor to be a part of their efforts in the field.”
-Sabrina Heise, social media content coordinator