Straw Dogs

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1997

Straw Dogs

In northern Botswana, a campaign to save an unvalued resident
By Elizabeth Royte

A predator is loose in the villages. It comes out of the tall grasslands, from the savanna to the north, and sneaks through the dusty kraals at dawn and at dusk. It rips the flesh of cattle and goats from the bone. The locals hate this animal. They lure it with poisoned meat. They shoot it on sight. The men who raise stock in this region spin elaborate stories about the beast. It's clever, they say. It's malevolent. Vicious.

In the dusty settlements that fringe the Moremi Wildlife Reserve, in remotest northern Botswana, people say that this bloodthirsty creature pulls down far more animals than it ever could eat. That its method of killing is crueler than any other predator's, that it slowly tears away chunks of meat, eating its prey alive. Without hesitation, this beast will turn on an injured or sick pack member, showing no reluctance to consume one of its own. And when the drought comes, say the villagers, you'd better watch out: This predator will even come after people.

What is this animal so feared and reviled? A lion, perhaps, or a leopard? Or could it be some newly discovered carnivore, long of tooth and huge in appetite? No. The focus of evil in this part of Botswana has settled firmly on the spotted head of one small and vaguely innocent-looking canid, the African wild dog.

The Moremi Wildlife Reserve, spreading across 1,160 square miles of Botswana's Okavango Delta, is a primeval oasis of endless grass and sky. In the wet season the park blooms with leafy baobab trees, acacias, and mohpani scrub, greening up the sere browns of the Kalahari Desert, which peters out just to the south in the lower delta. Muddy pans of standing water attract a nonstop parade of celebrity African wildlife: giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, impalas, elephants, lions, cheetahs, baboons, rhinos.

The wild dogs' life sounds pretty utopian, until you get to the part about the hierarchy that excludes any but the dominant male and female from having sex.

While many of these creatures might be doomed to end up as rugs, aphrodisiac powders, and wall-mounted coatracks, none faces quite so grim a future as that notorious Moremi resident, the wild dog. Once traveling in force over nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa, wild dogs have been reduced by disease, hunting, poisoning, trapping, and the steady fragmentation of habitat to a population of less than 5,000. Today they live only in Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, in South Africa's Kruger National Park, and here in Moremi, where some 700 dogs, in packs of eight to ten, roam the park and its outskirts. Because wild dog packs contain just one male and female that mate, the entire breeding population in Botswana is less than 100 pairs.

Hunkered down among the canines, in a two-tent camp surrounded by large shade trees, is John "Tico" McNutt, a 40-year-old researcher from the University of California at Davis who has spent the last eight years studying the life and times of Moremi's wild dogs. His is a daunting task: to collect enough information on the behavior and movements of the animals to convince Botswana's Department of Wildlife that Lycaon pictus is a species worth fighting to protect. Sharing the emotional burden of what could prove to be a thankless mission is McNutt's wife, Lesley Boggs, a 32-year-old anthropologist who is recording the ever-unkind local attitudes toward wild dogs for her doctorate at McGill University in Toronto.

Toward five o'clock one hot Botswana day, when the broiling sun has retreated and the dogs are likely to be stirring from their afternoon nap, I set off with McNutt in search of the elusive menace. I wonder if I should lock the door of the Land Rover, or roll up the window. As we bump over fallen branches and through ditches hidden by long grass, I steel myself for several hours of tedious tracking; McNutt has radio collars on two or three dogs in nine separate packs, and his study site covers 1,860 square miles. But ten minutes from camp, the telemetry goes nuts and we pull up, like suburbanites at a grocery store, to an acacia surrounded by ten dogs.

Their coats are short, a marbled camouflage of ecru, smoke, taupe, and sand — the palette of the northern Kalahari. I'm quite sure their jaws do not drip with blood. I can't even hear any growling. Their ears, big and rounded, flick and rotate like satellite dishes. They glance at us, then resume their snooze. A deadly rampage doesn't seem to be on their agenda. Does your presence alter their behavior? I ask McNutt. "No," he says. "They're remarkably calm about it all, even when I first started tracking them." McNutt could probably get out and pet the dogs, but he won't. They're already way too habituated to humans.

At six-foot-two, in wire-rimmed glasses, McNutt looks like an intellectual jock. He's quiet and emphatically private, slow to come forth with even the most straightforward information. He grew up in Seattle. For his early love of Tigger, his family nicknamed him Tico. After receiving a doctorate in animal behavior from UC Davis, he took off for Botswana to study baboons. When I ask him why he switched his focus to wild dogs — I expect something esoteric: Maybe he was picked on as a kid and he identifies with wild dogs? — all he says, in his affectless tone, is, "My supervisor didn't want anything to do with them."

This is isolating work in every sense for McNutt. He's the only biologist studying wild dogs in Botswana (and one of only a handful who do so worldwide), and his research subjects are suffering an acute popularity crisis. No attributes attach to the wild dog, such as a lion's bravery or an elephant's intelligence. Unlike its neighbor the hyena, it's not even begrudgingly admired for its tenacity. Even its pelt is shunned, for it has an ungodly smell.

When I ask what it's like living so close to so much wildlife, Kat says, "It's like being at the Bronx Zoo and learning all the animals have been let loose."

In reality, wild dogs are quite social, even more so than their distant cousin, the wolf. They hunt as a unit, let the youngest dogs eat first at kills, and share baby-sitting duties. It sounds fairly utopian, until you get to the part about the hierarchy that excludes any but the alpha male and female from having sex. Dogs being dogs, though, subordinates do sometimes give it a go. If pups result from this unsanctioned union, they're almost always killed before they can hear the story of their conception.

McNutt introduces me to the pack. "That's Piccolo," he says, indicating the alpha male, a large dog wearing a radio collar. His pack mates are all named along a musical theme. Other packs are named after Star Trek characters, poets, islands. "My first pack was moods," McNutt says. "My first collar was Stress. His mate was Anxiety. Stress and Anxiety disappeared years ago." Either McNutt has said this so many times it no longer sounds funny to him, or he's too cool to react to my wincing smile.

For animals that routinely dine on large game, wild dogs are rather petite: The adults weigh about 65 pounds. McNutt admits they're beautiful — strong, lithe, and intelligent-looking — but he's not the type to gush. A picture of his oldest study subject, an 11-year-old male, hangs on his refrigerator, though I suspect that's Boggs's doing, not his.

"Who's that?" I ask, pointing to a lone yellow dog wearing a collar, stretched out under a baobab tree 30 feet away. "That's Newckie," McNutt says. I'm wondering if that's some kind of African woodwind when he explains that Newckie's short for Newcastle, a British beer. Newckie's mother was named Harp (the lager, not the instrument). The beer pack disappeared from this area last April, along with four other packs McNutt had been tracking. He suspects that a disease transmitted through domestic dogs — which can't mate with wild dogs but can easily spread parvo, rabies, and distemper — killed them off. Then out of the blue, Newckie showed up, alone, and began to tag after Piccolo's group.

One by one, the dogs wake up and give each other the ritual greeting that precedes any hunting session: a series of nuzzles accompanied by strange twittering noises. They saunter to a pan, except for Newckie, who remains under his tree. He stands and stretches only when the pack sets off, single file, toward a clump of scrub. He follows at a distance, until Piccolo suddenly stops and wheels around. He lowers his head toward Newckie. "This is interesting," says McNutt, raising his binoculars. "Newckie is after the females. But a single male usually isn't an attractive mate, from a female's point of view."

Only when Newckie retreats does Piccolo return to the pack. "Why do they tolerate him at all?" I ask McNutt.

"Because Newckie knows the area, he's strong, and he's a good hunter," he says. In many ways, Newckie is symbolic of the wild dog's plight: He's loathed, mistrusted, and his odds of success don't seem particularly high.

As we bump along in pursuit of the dogs, I try to make out the temporarily dry river beds of the Okavango Delta, which fans out over 6,000 square miles of Botswana's northwest corner. For centuries, the threat of sleeping sickness, carried by the delta's endemic tsetse flies, was enough to keep humans out of this place. But aerial spraying has now virtually eliminated that natural barrier and Botswanans have begun to settle the delta. Though Botswana's Department of Wildlife claims to have set aside 36 percent of the country for wildlife, that figure includes significant tracts where hunting and other concessions are permitted and where predator control is in effect.

We arrive at a vast open area known as South Bend, where a finger of the Okavango once took a sweeping turn. In the distance, I can make out a herd of elephants, purple now against a violent, stormy sky. I begin to count them and stop, at 120, when McNutt quietly says, "Dog food." He points to a dozen or so impalas, the peanut butter and jelly of the Lycaon diet.

The dogs emerge from a thicket: a male named Riff followed by Melody, Opus, Symphony, Ballad, and Piccolo's mate, Bell. Unfazed by the prowling vehicle, the pack divides and closes in on the herd. Wild dogs make their living in a field crowded with fleet-footed meat eaters. To beat the night hunters (lions and leopards) and the day hunters (cheetahs), they've filled the crepuscular slot, at dawn and dusk. Contrary to local belief, the kill itself is not a cruelly drawn-out process. With surgical precision and lightning speed, the dogs bite at their prey's underbelly. Aiming for liver, heart, and lungs, they basically disembowel on the hoof. Once the rest of the pack arrives, the dogs dismember the carcass within seconds. To evade scavengers, they keep vocalizations to a minimum — this is where the big ears and small twitters come in.

I was looking forward to a demonstration, but the dogs begin to slow down, mired in the grass, and the impalas float away. Bell is missing from the group, as is Newckie, and Piccolo starts to pace, scanning the field. Personally, I think Piccolo's losing it. He looks thin, he's limping, and now he's worrying about his mate stepping out on him. A black cloud as big as Manhattan looms just to our west, a sci-fi parody of doom. Lightning slashes the sky. We make a fine electrical target out here in the grasslands. McNutt starts the engine. I'm crushed that we won't get to see a kill, but McNutt has more important things to consider than my blood lust. "The fun's over," he says, and turns the Land Rover around.

Not five miles to our south, a barbed-wire fence stretches for more than a hundred miles across the delta. Erected by the government in the mideighties, this veterinary cordon was designed to keep wild animals, and their diseases, from interfering with Botswana's economic mainstay: cattle.

Historically, cattle have held nothing but cultural value for Botswanans. Men accumulated them to display wealth, to pay dowries. They were rarely eaten or sold as meat. The limiting factor on herd size was available forage and water: The country is four-fifths desert, and the richest grasslands lay in the delta, which was infested by the tsetse fly. Technology and politics have changed all that. The European Union started subsidizing the Botswanan beef industry in the 1970s, and now cattle, three million of them, outnumber people two to one. The fence has severely limited the migration of wildlife, both predator and prey, and converted traditionally nomadic people into sedentary pastoralists. With their communal lands overgrazed and the human population swelling, cattle owners must now continually herd their investments toward new rangeland, dig new holes for water, and push, ineluctably, into the Okavango Delta, the stronghold of the wild dog. Herdsmen see the dogs as cow killers, and dogs do sometimes take a calf, especially if the calf is near dog territory. Though the government compensates ranchers who lose cows to wild dogs, the process is tedious and slow, and many ranchers prefer to dispense their own justice, with a shotgun.

In her survey of villages around Moremi, Lesley Boggs has collected reams of negative impressions about wild dogs. But when pressed, her interview subjects usually admit that they've never had physical contact with a wild dog, nor have they heard of anyone being injured by one; many had never even seen a wild dog. "It was myth and folklore that shaped their attitudes, not direct experience," says Boggs, a blue-eyed blond with the delicate features of a china doll. Where did the myths come from? In part, she says, from early, inaccurate accounts by natural historians that never got corrected. People may have assumed dogs kill more than they eat because pack members hunt en masse but quit once a kill is made; stories about cannibalism may be based on an observation of a bloodied dog returning from a kill and getting mobbed by pack mates who are in fact begging for regurgitated food. The belief that wild dogs have a sadistic yen for torturing their prey is clearly an anthropocentric judgment, says Boggs. "There's a deeply rooted predisposition among people all over the world to vilify wild large canids," she says. "The same thing happened with wolves. The fear isn't primal; it's culturally transmitted. And it's a hard fear to break, particularly here, where people don't particularly like whites telling them what to do with their animals."

In the United States, wild dog awareness recently got a boost from the broadcast of two popular television specials on the animals, one of which featured McNutt, looking alpha-male strapping and handsome. As a result, visitors to the Okavango Delta have actually begun to ask photo safari operators to show them wild dogs. While this might lend the animals some economic value, the tourists haven't yet arrived in numbers big enough to bump them up the endangered species list or earn them a wildlife postage stamp.

As go the dogs, schedule-wise, so go McNutt, Boggs, and their six-month-old son, Madison. McNutt rises early to observe, track, and tag dogs; he does another session at dusk. In the rainy season, the project downshifts: The tall grass makes it hard to watch the dogs, and the mud bogs down the Land Rover. When in camp — a couple of wall tents and an open kitchen with a dining table flanked by a tank of liquid nitrogen — McNutt and Boggs write in their journals or tackle the endless paperwork that field study entails. There's a basketball hoop nailed to a big tree, and sometimes McNutt, a high school jock, works on his jump shot.

And sometimes he has visitors, namely Pieter Kat, a biologist with the Philadelphia Zoo who lives alone with an assistant at a camp less than a mile away. Kat is tall, thin, and blond, with a perpetual look of bemused concentration. He studies several prides of lions that range in and around Moremi. When asked what it's like living in such close proximity to so much wildlife, he says, "It's like being at the Bronx Zoo and learning that all the animals have suddenly been let loose."

Kat and McNutt regularly pool their information. Because wild dogs evolved through millions of years of predation pressure from lions, it behooves anyone interested in wild dog behavior and ecology to consider the impact of lions, which regularly steal dog kills and sometimes kill dogs.

One afternoon, while McNutt dozes in the office tent, Kat pulls up in his battered Land Rover and reports that he saw a lioness finishing off a baboon this morning. "I also saw a fresh set of dog tracks," he adds. "Oh, really? Where?" McNutt says, perking up. Kat draws him a rough map, and McNutt climbs into his truck and follows his neighbor out of camp.

Boggs is looking after the baby, as usual. But she's got her own grant proposals to write: Fresh funding would reinvigorate her work in the villages. In the interest of advancing her career, I volunteer to watch Madison for a few hours. I quickly exhaust the camp's entertainment possibilities and decide to load him into his backpack.

It's only when I'm 15 minutes from camp that I realize what a nice meal we would make: a slow-moving bipedal decadactyl with a soft, juicy hump on its back. Thanks to the predator situation, people don't do a whole lot of walking around here. Last night, while eating dinner, we heard some pride males roaring. "They're just over there," McNutt had said casually, nodding toward the darkness on the other side of camp.

I scan the ground for lion prints, in a desultory way, and nearly choke when I find them, a fat series meandering down a sandy path and disappearing into the trees. I think about medical evacuation, the lack of a radio. Trying not to look like prey, I mince home, relaxing only when I make out, in the shade of a camel-thorn tree, a sizable herd of impalas. Surely they make a more attractive lunch than Madison and I would: I was counting on it.

McNutt strolls from his tent at dawn, the telemetry set slung from his shoulder. All zipped up in his fleece vest, a cup of Starbucks coffee in his hand — he brings it back from the States — he looks like a Seattle salaryman off to work. From under a tarp he drags out a tiny open-cockpit microlight that he says has been backfiring lately. He runs through his preflight. It is brief. He tells me how to climb into the backseat without putting a hole in the floor, starts the engine, and plugs in the headphones. As we taxi down the bumpy runway, I ask, "Tico, is there anything I should know?"

"Yes," he answers, as straight-faced as ever. "If a wing falls off and I'm not reacting fast enough, pull this." He indicates a small plastic handle on the wing strut, presumably attached to a parachute. I say OK and he pulls the throttle. Within seconds, we're airborne.

From 200 feet up, the mysterious hydrology of the delta becomes clearer. Standing pools of water create reedbeds, papyrus swamps, and small islands of date palms and fig trees. We fly for about 20 minutes, casting our tiny shadow over a pride of ten napping lions, a pan filled with hippos, and the usual grassland riot of ungulates. It's a textbook place for wild dogs. Eventually, McNutt homes in on Piccolo. The pack is lounging among thick growth, and we can't make out more than a few dogs. We circle tighter and tighter, tilted at a crazy angle over the acacias. The burning question is whether Newckie is present. Has he been banished from the pack by Piccolo? Or been injured in a fight? Fighting among pack mates is uncommon, but Newckie, as a lone male, got himself into an uncommon situation. Maybe he accepted a submissive role in the pack. I was hoping that he'd had a little luck and successfully wooed away one of the females. He could already be setting up house in a new territory.

McNutt turns to Newckie's radio-collar frequency and gives me a nod. The yellow dog is somewhere down below, with the Piccolo pack. Another circle reveals that he's napping solo, several yards from the group. No closer to his amatory goal than before, he was at least still hanging in there. As the plane straightens out, I send Newckie a mental thumbs up.

Elizabeth Royte, a frequent contributor to Outside, wrote about legendary outdoorsman Paul Petzoldt in the April issue.

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