Notes from the Field: Jennifer D'Agostino Embarks on Mission to Save Painted Dogs

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.

Heise and D'Agostino

Dr. D'Agostino shared her experiences from the field, including a first-of-its-kind mission to save an endangered litter of pups:

As a zoo veterinarian, I have always had a passion for conservation. When the opportunity arose to travel to Zimbabwe to help the Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT), I jumped at the chance and was privileged to be chosen. I have worked with painted dogs in a zoo setting for many years so I was excited to get to put my skills to use helping their counterparts in the wild.

Jenn Demonstrating blood pressure machine

After a long, and somewhat arduous, journey we arrived in Victoria Falls and hit the ground running. There are three primary threats to the painted dog population.

1. Traffic collisions on roads running through their habitat,

2. Getting caught in illegal snares set to catch bushmeat and,

3. Habitat loss due to human encroachment.

PDRT focuses on scientific research to determine how these threats can be mitigated. I was excited to work with students from University of Zimbabwe to help with their primary ongoing study, looking at traffic speed through painted dog habitat.

Jenn traffic study

We spent several days clocking the speed of many cars, buses and trucks along the main highway, which happens to cut right through the National Park. The speed limit is set at 80 kph (50 mph) and we clocked a car doing 140 kph (87mph)! Back here in the United States, can you imagine the fine you would get going almost 90mph in a 50mph zone? It would be substantial I’m sure! However, in Zimbabwe, there is very little to no enforcement of the speed limits and this results in the death of many species of wildlife, including the painted dogs.

Traffic Study 2

Unfortunately, while we were collecting data, we came across a juvenile vervet monkey that had been hit and killed by a speeding vehicle. The data collected will be used to effect change at the highest government level and enact strict and substantial fines for speeding as well as increased efforts enforcing the law. If successful, this will be a big win for all wildlife!

We then headed out into the bush for four days to try and find the Chundu pack to fit anti-snare collars on 3-4 of the dogs. Dr. Greg has designed a special collar that does not impact the dogs but serves to immediately cut the wire if a dog gets trapped in a snare, saving its life.

Anti-snare collar

In order to fit the collars on the dogs, the packs have to be located and put under anesthesia.  This is obviously more difficult than it sounds! First, you have to find the pack then be in a position to capture the dogs safely. I was able to work with Dr. Greg on reviewing protocols and monitoring of the dogs while under anesthesia with a vital signs monitor that was donated to PDRT. Unfortunately, satellite and GPS signals did not align so we were not able to find the Chundu pack. However, we embarked on a completely different, and never before attempted mission!

Body Condition Scoring

Just prior to our arrival, it was discovered that Anne, alpha female in the Musketeer pack, had just given birth to a litter of pups. However, Anne was in very poor body condition indicating that the small pack was not able to provide enough food for her and her pups. Anne was in danger of losing the pups if she did not get more food. Supplemental carcass feeding has never before been tried in painted dogs but it was worth a try. Permission was granted by the government and off we went! 

Planning the Mission

A portion of carcass from a legal hunt was obtained and carried into the bush near the den. We placed camera traps, left a meat and scent trail and nervously waited. The biggest risk would be attraction of hyenas and lions, the main predator threats to painted dogs. Luckily, camera trap footage showed that the pack came over that evening and feasted on the carcass we had left for them. It was so exciting to be part of this ground-breaking mission. Recent camera trap footage shows the pups are growing and healthy and the pack is doing well!

Placing the Carcass

While I certainly wish we could have had the hands-on experience of placing the anti-snare collars, the trip was an incredible experience and one I’ll never forget. My favorite time was spent out in the bush, away from civilization and truly being surrounded by nature. Outside of seeing a painted dog at her den, I will never forget being “serenaded” by two prides of lions on either side of our campsite as we woke up early one morning. Africa is a magical place filled with amazing people and incredible wildlife. I hope to return soon and continue to participate in advancing wildlife health and conservation medicine.

Dr. Jennifer D'Agostino

-Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, director of veterinary services

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