Canine column: First time seeing wild dogs

By Marti Benson

We were warned we may never see them.

The African wild dog—or painted dog—is an endangered species. This striking canine is perceived as a nuisance to the locals. Whether by direct confrontation with farmers protecting their livestock, or falling prey to traps set for predators, the population of wild dogs has dwindled dramatically. The African wild dog is, also, viewed as competition to local hunters.

I longed to see a painted dog. Friends who had visited Botswana before us lamented never seeing one. Our guide even noted that a sighting was rare. The majestic elephants, giraffes and lions—and all the other critters that loped, slithered or swooshed above us—continually brought me to elated tears. Hippos, hyenas and warthogs—check. As we neared the end of a late afternoon game drive—our last one in the breathtaking Okavango Delta—our guide received a radio call about a leopard-sighting nearby. Racing to the location, our jeep rounded a bend and, “Dogs!” my husband yelled.

Lounging before us was a jumble of black and gold and white fur, enormous rounded ears and toothy grins. Adults and pups stared at us, as nine pairs of human eyes bulged from their sockets. Curious youngsters sidled up to our jeep, until the grownups pushed them aside. The hair went up on my neck and my heart skipped a beat or two.

“These adults are babysitters,” our guide whispered. “The parents are hunting.”

We watched for several minutes before the pack sauntered off into the tall grass. One two, three … 15, 16, 17! Back at camp, we toasted giddily to our luck. Even our guides enjoyed recounting the extraordinary moment to their comrades. We were still relishing the moment in the morning while waiting at the dirt airstrip for our flights to the next remote camp. While most of the group climbed aboard the 11-seater Grand Caravan, a handful of us volunteered to stay behind for a tiny Cessna that was delayed from elsewhere.

 “Let’s go for a drive,” our guide suggested.

Best airline mechanical ever! Within minutes, we encountered our pack of wild dogs from the night before. This time, I was fascinated with how similar their roughhousing, posturing and antics were to our own dogs. The African wild dogs were as magical and mesmerizing as I’d imagined them to be—and, yet, their behavior was familiar.

After a month in Africa—and a grueling 37 hours to get home—we landed; exhausted. But as we got closer to the boarding facility where our three dogs were waiting, my heart began to race. When the attendant brought Yvey, Chip and Ernie through the door, I was overcome with joy and gratitude. The world is a better place because of dogs!

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