Currently, I’m a seasonal keeper at my local zoo and it’s given me the amazing opportunity to learn a lot about different animals. One thing that I absolutely love about animals is that a certain species may all look alike, but they’re all different. They’re all individuals like us humans. We all share the same relative shape, but some of us may have high cheekbones, or brown hair, or be shorter, or longer limbed, etc. Etc. Etc. The same goes for animals. At my zoo, I’m learning how to distinguish the animals we care for. Learning to catch those differences that set them apart from each other. This week, I’ve been working on distinguishing our African Painted Dogs.
African Painted Dogs are the “wolves of Africa” and have the most successful hunting rate in Africa. They believe in cooperation and even have altruistic values in taking care of the old and sick in their pack. Most people mistake them for hyenas, but fun fact: African Painted Dogs are more closely related to dogs while hyenas are more closely related to cats. The way we tell our dogs apart is by their painted pattern.
African Painted Dogs have three colors on their coats: black, white, and orange. When they’re born, they’re born black and white and the orange fades in as they grow from some of their black patches. We tell our dogs apart by who has the most black, most white, and most orange, and if we can’t tell by that, then we pick out distinguished markings in their coat or notches in their ear. Distinguished markings could be a white patch with a black spot in it or stripes of white down their side. It could also be the way their fur lays on their face: a more distinguished squiggle in the black stripe on their forehead or maybe their cheeks aren’t as orange as other dogs.
Now, painted dogs in the wild aren’t going to line up for you to catch the uniqueness of their coats, but at the zoo, we can line them up for training or they’ll patrol their exhibit in a perfect “follow the leader” situation. Other times, they’ll bunch up and you’ll just have to get lucky, but as with any animal, the longer you’re around them, the more you’ll get to know them and catch those fine details with just one glance. That’s what I’m hoping for with our Painted Dogs.
So, the next time you go to the zoo, I’d like to encourage you to look for those unique markings on the different animals. If your zoo doesn’t have Painted Dogs, try it with the chimps. Take a good look at their faces to see those distinguished features. I believe you’ll gain a better appreciation for the species if you do.