Starting in 2017, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden partnered with the Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT) to support their conservation mission. The PDRT director, Dr. Greg Rasmussen, has worked for almost two decades protecting and studying the African painted dog, an endangered species with fewer than 7,000 left in the wild.
To further support the PDRT, the Zoo sent two employees on a conservation trip to Zimbabwe in November to participate in research and (attempt) to track and collar painted dogs. Trisha McDonald, animal caretaker, shares her experience from Zimbabwe.
This was my first trip to Africa. Every morning we would find out what was planned for the day, and only occasionally would we get a hint as to what we would be doing the next. We helped with general projects around basecamp: painting a shed, installing solar panels and building a roaster for large gatherings. Some days we traveled the area looking for painted dogs.
We also got to meet the founder of International Anti-Poaching Foundation, Damein Mander. He also told us about his work of training rangers that protect rhinos and of some of the recent arrests they had made and seemed very excited for the Conservation Center Dr. Rasmussen is building.
I was excited and nervous to go out in the field to find painted dogs… nervous to sleep outside on the ground but excited to finally see painted dogs in the wild! After spending three days driving the dirt roads of forestry lands and wildlife management areas, we came across a Blind snake crossing the road. Dr. Rasmussen slammed on the breaks so hard I thought I’d get whiplash.
Safari operators were driving tourists through some of the same areas we were exploring and whenever we crossed paths, Dr. Rasmussen asked every one if they had seen any painted dogs. He also spent time talking to the tourists and answering questions. We even met a safari operator along the Botswana-Zimbabwe border who had previously reported painted dog sightings to Dr. Rasmussen. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any painted dogs during our time in Zimbabwe, but were able to assist Dr. Rasmussen in making new connections that might lead to painted dog sightings in the future.
For me, the most powerful experience was also the most heart-rending. Dr. Rasmussen donated anesthesia drugs to a local animal clinic, funded by donations and providing free care for pet dogs and donkeys. However, not many people have cars to bring their animals to the clinic so we arranged for pickup and delivery of dogs to get spayed or neutered. We assisted the veterinary staff at the clinic during surgeries. To see the condition of these pets was gut-wrenching. The nice ones were skinny and the not nice ones were even skinnier. Since dogs have no monetary value, they have to find their food in the scraps and aren’t treated with kindness by most humans. Being a dog parent, this was a very hard morning.
The journey to Zimbabwe was an eye-opening experience. Supporting conservation from afar, it’s easy to imagine an idyllic setting in a well-manicured preserve surrounded by animals, but that’s not reality. Animal conservation is hard, often frustrating work requiring an understanding of different cultures, animal behavior and an ability to educate and change minds. People like Dr. Rasmussen are on the front lines of a critical battle and I’m proud to be a part of an organization supporting his efforts.
-Trisha McDonald, animal caretaker