Wild Things

Wild Dogs Are Vicious Killers With a Surprisingly Generous Social Life

Some people call them “the devil’s dogs,” and maybe not without cause.

Courtesy of Pieter Pretorius

When people think of the animals of Africa, they worry about getting crushed by elephants or chased across the savannah by a pride of lions. Maybe they fear getting Mufasa-ed by wildebeest or buffalo, envenomated by black mambas, gored by hippos, or drowned by crocs.

But this is silly. The crown of bones for the most deadly animal in Africa has to go to the cuddliest looking critters of the bunch—the painted dogs.  

The African painted dog looks similar enough to the tuft-tailed mutt you grew up with, but I promise you, this canine doesn’t wear Christmas sweaters. Alternately called the African wild dog, Cape hunting dog, ornate wolf, and about half a dozen other combinations of those words, Lycaon pictus is more formidable than its big ears and calico coat let on. Some just call them “the devil’s dogs,” and maybe not without cause.

“One of the reason’s why people think painted dogs are ruthless killers,” says Esther van der Meer, scientific advisor for Painted Dog Conservation, “is because of the way they disembowel their prey.”

When a scientist uses the word disembowel, it’s my duty as your Wild Things scribe to lean way in. So if you have kids or vegans nearby, you may wish to relocate or put on some headphones. Because it’s about to get all nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw up in here.

I spent a week hanging out with the crew of WildEarth.tv, a team that live-streams the happenings of the African bush onto the Web twice a day, every day. Its show Safari Live broadcasts this week during Nat Geo Wild’s Big Cat Week. (Full disclosure: Nat Geo Wild paid for my travel and lodging. I picked up the tab for the malaria meds.)

While the rest of us are forgetting to put cover sheets on our testing procedure specification reports, the crew members of WildEarth.tv are tracking leopards by urine, sticking their heads into hyena dens, and monitoring the House of Cards–like power struggles between prides of lions. And while they literally see the Big Five on a daily basis, many of them seemed most impressed by the wild dogs.

Perhaps this is because they get to experience wild dogs as they truly are—both bloodthirsty carnivores capable of stripping much larger animals down to the bone but also highly social pack animals with bizarre hierarchies that would deeply offend any Ayn Rand fans. Each side of their biology supports the other. You cannot separate the two.

Take this clip of a wild dog hunt that WildEarth.tv shot during last year’s Big Cat Week. I’ll tell you right now that it terminates in one of the bloodiest kills I’ve ever seen—the dogs eviscerate a pregnant impala and carry away its kicking fetus while the cameras roll from just a few yards away. But we can’t allow the gruesomeness of the act to overshadow the brilliance with which it is constructed. More on that in a moment. For now, just watch.

Take a deep breath. You good? OK, let’s continue.

“As much as this is not a pretty sight, it is a quick way for prey to die,” says van der Meer, “especially compared to the hours it can take lions to kill prey.”

Big cats tend to go for an animal’s windpipe, a method that can fail if the hold isn’t just so. Covering the nostrils and mouth is another way to go. And at least one pride of lions has learned how to take down elephants this way: First they slice through the elephant’s hamstrings, then collapse it with their weight while other lions clamp down on the trunk and attack the throat. All in all, you could watch Stand By Me in its entirety in the time it takes to a lion pride to suffocate an elephant.

Cheetahs, for instance, are famously prone to overheating, so you’ll often see them sitting atop a prey animal mid-kill, panting while the doomed creature kicks pitifully at the dust. Not so with the wild dogs. Because they’ve evolved to withstand high body temperatures, they have no need for a post-chase cool-down. That means that if you’re ever caught by one, you’ll likely be in half a dozen stomachs before you even know you hit the ground.

But at least you can rest assured that your carcass will be shared! Van der Meer explains that wild dogs hardly ever show aggression toward one another, and especially not while feeding. And according to studies, wild dog pups are given priority at kills as soon as they’re old enough to join the hunt. In fact, near the beginning of the video above, you can watch as one of the adult dogs leaves the hunt to bring in reinforcements, including a bunch of cuddly little pups. And this all-for-one, one-for-all attitude extends beyond the young’uns.

“Painted dogs are incredibly social creatures that take communal care of not only their puppies but also the sick and injured,” says van der Meer.

At least you can rest assured that your carcass will be shared.

Courtesy of Pieter Pretorius

Packs can consist of anywhere between six and 20 animals and are usually headed by an alpha pair. When either member of an alpha pair dies, the pack splits up into two single-sex adult groups. Strangely, a male from the youngest sexually mature cohort, rather than the oldest, accepts alpha dog status of the male group. Alpha females retain their status for life.

This dissolution, called pack fission, allows for a peaceful transition of power while also diversifying the gene pool. Over the course of a year, each pack’s dynamic will change as new pups are born and sexually mature males join in the hopes of breeding.  

Roger Burrows, of AfricanWildDogWatch.org, has a whole paper on the process, but here are a few notes that highlight the crazy inverted hierarchy of these animals: Any time alpha male status is transferred, the former alpha (if he’s still alive) remains in the pack peacefully. If the group finds orphaned males, they will adopt them. Once the orphans are sexually mature, one of them will assume control of his foster pack as alpha—again, all of this without any violence. If two breeding pairs have pups in the same season, the subordinate pair’s pups have priority over the alpha pair’s pups at kills. In other words, African painted dogs live by a code that’s basically the opposite of everything you know about capitalism, “the law of the jungle,” and your high school cafeteria.

So yes, we’re talking about an animal with the strongest bite force quotient of any living Carnivora, an animal with massive premolars designed for crunching through bones, an animal that hunts with one of the highest success rates of any predator on earth. But these are not wantonly wielded weapons of destruction. They are highly evolved tools that have allowed an animal the size of a border collie to survive on a continent full of horns and teeth and claws.

Unfortunately, despite millions of years of evolutionary fine-tuning, the future of the African paint dog looks dire. According to van der Meer, fewer than 650 breeding pairs remain. Persecution by humans is one problem, as livestock owners have tended to view the predators as vermin and shoot them on sight. The dogs are also killed unintentionally by snares, struck by vehicles, and laid low by diseases such as rabies and canine distemper. And every death counts.

“Once a pack has lost several members and pack size becomes critically low, a whole pack can become extirpated due to a decrease in hunting and reproductive success,” says van der Meer.

But far and away, the biggest problem facing Lycaon pictus today is habitat loss. The whole of the remaining population now survives on just 9.4 percent of the species’ historical range. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed the wild dog as endangered since 1990—and the population is still decreasing. African wild dogs are a species in its twilight, and one often ignored by the flashcards and picture books we use to teach our kids about wildlife.

From peaceful power transfers and pup-rearing to the drive-by disembowelings that have made the animals infamous, the African wild dogs’ complexity just makes the predators all the more magnificent.