Protect the Pack!

African painted dogs face many threats in the wild.  One of the largest dangers to dogs is snaring.  Poachers set up snares in the bush, meaning to capture animals for bush meat.  However, snares are indiscriminant and capture more than what they are intended for.

Mock ups 2 copyConservationists in Zimbabwe discovered that specialized radio collars can help keep collared dogs from receiving mortal wounds due to snaring.  These original collars did well, but the researchers felt that they could be improved.  Staff from the Facilities Department in the Houston Zoo collaborated with other institutions to help design and build a new collar.

Brandon working on a new collar.
Brandon working on a new collar.

The new collars have a lighter-weight material and clips attached, designed to catch the snare wire before it can constrict around a dog’s neck.  Once the wire is caught within the clips the dog can easily break it.  These simple modifications can help save dogs’ lives!

The 5th clip design for the new collars is currently being tested.  Once those trials are done, almost 900 tests will have been performed!  Much of this collaboration is made possible by Painted Dog Protection Initiative .

If you would like to learn more about this collar project and other ways the Houston Zoo is helping to save animals in the wild, please join us for our 3rd annual Dog Days of Summer celebration on June 5 and 6 from 10:00AM – 2:00PM!

Snaring is Not Only an Exotic Problem

Several times during the year, you can find Houston Zoo staff scouring the beaches of Galveston. All too often, trash, especially plastic products, is improperly disposed of and ends up in our waterways and the surrounding areas. What many people do not know is that these items can prove deadly to local wildlife. Plastics can take anywhere from 20 to over 600 years to decompose in the environment, and they can come into contact with countless organisms within that time.

sea turtleFish and other marine life can become entangled in leftover fishing line. Sea turtles can ingest plastic bags. Raccoons, turtles, and ducks can become stuck inside the loops of an uncut 6-pack ring. Once in the environment, plastic will remain until it is collected and disposed of properly. Houston Zoo staff assist with this by organizing beach and crab trap clean up days where employees, and often their family members, travel to Galveston and spend the day collecting trash and abandoned traps before they can become a hazard to our native wildlife.

painted dogAcross the globe, anti-poaching units in Zimbabwe are faced with a similar struggle. However, instead of a few days out of the year, this is a full time job for them. They travel through the bush, collecting snares left behind by poachers seeking game such as antelope.  Many animals, like lions and African painted dogs, fall prey to these traps. Without the anti-poaching units, these traps could be present in the environment for years. Since the Painted Dog Conservation’s anti-poaching unit’s inception in 2001, over 15,000 traps have been collected!


What can you do to help animals in the wild?

  • Just by coming to the zoo you are helping to save animals in the wild as a portion of every admission goes right back to conservation programs!
  • Recycle! Recycling items such as plastics can help keep them out of landfills and away from wildlife.
  • Reuse! Purchase reusable shopping bags to reduce the amount of waste that goes into making and disposing of plastic ones.  It also keeps plastic bags from ending up in our waters where it can be potentially consumed by animals like sea turtles.
  • Dispose! Properly dispose of items like monofilament (fishing) lines.  Many fishing areas have labeled bins for your convenience!

Want to learn more about African painted dogs and what the Houston Zoo is doing to help save them in the wild? Join us for our 3rd annual Dog Days of Summer celebration on June 5 and 6 from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.!

New Painted Dog Collar Saves Them From Snare Wire Traps

painted-dog-collar-snare-wire-1Animals in the wild are faced with dangers every day. Many of those dangers are man-made. African painted dogs are the second most endangered carnivore in Africa and are frequent prey to the snares set up by poachers. The poachers are not particularly interested in the dogs, but are after animals like antelope to sell to the bush-meat trade. However, snares are indiscriminant and many other species are caught.

Conservationists in Zimbabwe are combating this by modifying radio collars to help snared dogs be able to break the wire. The Houston Zoo has partnered with Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) and Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT) in order to help design a more effective, lightweight collar. Members of the Zoos’ maintenance staff came up with several ideas for clips to attach to the collars that would catch the wire and then focus it to a breaking point.

Combined with the efforts of anti-poaching units dispatched to collect snares from the bush, these new collars will be instrumental in saving the lives of painted dogs in the wild. The loss of even one dog to a snare can completely decimate a pack, and with numbers estimated at 3,000-5,000 the dogs need every chance they can be afforded.


The Houston Zoo loves its painted dog pack and wants to help protect them in the wild. We have a unique relationship with PDC and PDRT and have dispatched staff members to the research sites in order to utilize their particular expertise. In exchange, PDC has sent staff to the Houston Zoo to work with us to exchange techniques and ideas.

We also assist with the African painted dog conservation effort by offering snare wire art for sale to our guests. Snare wire is collected by anti-poaching units and then delivered to local artisans who craft different animals out of it. This gets the wire out of the country as well as brings funds to local villages. 100% of the proceeds go back to Zimbabwe.


The Houston Zoo is celebrating everything painted dog on the weekend of June 7 and 8 during our annual Dog Days of Summer celebration! Please join us for keeper chats, enrichment demonstrations, and kid’s crafts. The event is scheduled to run from 10AM-2PM each day at the painted dog exhibit.


Dog Days of Summer: Meet Mikita, African Painted Dog


Name: Mikita

Alias: The Alpha

Age: 8 years

Mikita is one of three African Painted Dogs residing at the Houston Zoo.  He is the nephew of pack-mates Blaze and Aries.  His keepers have often observed him to be the Great Mediator.  Mikita is usually content to stand back a little and let Blaze, The Hunter, dive in first with any new enrichment items.  He is very quick to back Blaze up though, and is never far behind.  On the  occasion where Blaze is trying to steal  everybody else’s treat or toy for himself, Mikita is quick to step in and defend his stuff; often allowing Aries, the smallest, to end up with everything.


The best way to tell Mikita from his pack-mates is by the large amount of black fur in his coat.  His uncles are primarily a golden color.  Mikita is thought to be the alpha of our little pack as he exhibits the most restraint and will defend one or the other of his mates if one is becoming a bit of a bully.  In Painted Dog society, the alpha position is not achieved via physical strength or fighting ability like in wolves.  Instead it appears that the smartest, most charismatic dogs fill this position and truly lead their pack.  In fact, fighting amongst pack-mates in the wild rarely occurs if at all.


The Houston Zoo loves its African Painted Dogs and is involved with efforts to protect them in the wild. Please join us August 3-4, 2013 for Dog Days of Summer, a celebration of everything Painted Dog!  There will be Meet The Keeper talks, enrichment demonstrations, kid’s crafts, and the opportunity to aid Mikita’s wild counterparts.

Dog Days of Summer: Meet Blaze, African Painted Dog

Blaze 1

Name: Blaze

Alias: The Hunter

Age: 11 years

Blaze is one of three African Painted Dogs that reside at the Houston Zoo.  He is brother to Aries and uncle to Mikita.  Blaze is the fearless dog and is often the first to stalk, grab, or crash into any new food or enrichment item.  Anything might be something to eat, so he has to make sure!  He is prone to exhibit the hey, he has a better bone than I do mentality, so the rest of the pack will often hide their bones out of Blaze’s sight so that they can eat in peace.

Blaze 2

The best way to tell Blaze from his pack-mates is to look for his golden coat and long tail.  He rarely vocalizes to keepers and instead seems to save it for Mikita and their wrestling matches.  They sound like high-pitched squeaky toys when they play or wrestle over food or toys.  While observing this behavior, it is good to note that Painted Dogs are possibly one of the most cooperative social carnivores.  After a kill is made, the alpha pair ensures the pups along for the hunt eat first.  The rest of the hunting pack then gorges, filling their large capacity stomachs as much as they can before other carnivores, like lions, come to steal their food.  Painted Dogs can eat up to 1/3 of their own body weight!  The reason behind is that they would then go back to their burrow where nursing dogs and their pups are waiting to be fed.  The pack will then regurgitate the meat to feed the dogs that could not hunt!  They will even feed sick or injured dogs that are unable to hunt for themselves.

The Houston Zoo loves its African Painted Dogs and is involved with efforts to protect them in the wild. Please join us August 3-4, 2013 for Dog Days of Summer, a celebration of everything Painted Dog!  There will be Meet the Keeper talks, enrichment demonstrations, kid’s crafts, and the opportunity to aid Blaze’s wild counterparts.

Dog Days of Summer: Meet Aries, African Painted Dog

Aries 1

Name: Aries

Alias: The Protector

Age: 11 years
Aries is one of three African Painted Dogs that resides at the Houston Zoo.  He is brother to Blaze and uncle to Mikita.  Aries can most often be seen napping next to one of his pack-mates or patrolling the exhibit, protecting them from those pesky bunnies.  Though he seems to take on the protector role, Aries is the last of the pack to approach new things.  He will often wait until Blaze and Mikita begin to argue over a particular toy or food item, sneak up while they are busy with each other, and then grab the item in question to play with or consume at his leisure out of their line of vision.

Aries 4

The best way to tell Aries from his pack-mates is to look for a golden coat and short tail.  He is the most vocal of the dogs and will often growl a few short “barks” at his keepers while he is eating.  Vocalizations are very important in Painted Dog packs as they are one of the most communicative social carnivores.  Their sheer number of vocalizations is thought to be second only to dolphins.

What is the Houston Zoo doing to save the African painted dogs from extinction? 

The Houston Zoo loves its African painted dogs and is involved with efforts to protect them in the wild.   We help an organization called Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) in Zimbabwe, Africa, improve thier painted dog rehabilitation program by offering training to thier local staff.  They rehabilitate sick and injured wild African painted dogs and reintroduce them back into the wild.  We have also assisted with thier education, communications, research and community developement programs in the past.

Help us save African painted dogs from extinction!

Please join us August 3-4, 2013 for a special event called, Dog Days of Summer, a celebration of everything painted dog!  There will be Meet The Keeper talks, enrichment demonstrations, kid’s crafts, and the opportunity to aid Aries’ wild counterparts.  All funds raised will go to saving the painted dogs in the wild!  You can also click here to donate now to protect this beautiful animal in Africa!

Dog Days of Summer: A Unique Relationship

Summer in Houston brings to mind several things: heat, humidity, and mosquitoes the size of your hand!  This year, the Houston Zoo would like to start a new tradition, The Dog Days of Summer!  Painted dogs are one of the most endangered carnivores in Africa.  The Houston Zoo loves its African Painted Dogs and wants to do everything we can to save them from extinction.  We are proud to partner with and support Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) in Zimbabwe.  PDC is dedicated to protecting painted dogs in the wild, through research, education, and engagement of the local Zimbabwean community.  The Houston Zoo’s unique relationship with PDC has enabled the exchange of resources, information, training, and expertise.

pup and adult

PDC Lead Builder and Bush Camp Guide, Dought Nkomo, and Lead Dog Keeper, Xmas Mpofu came to the Houston Zoo in 2011 to begin an exchange with Houston Zoo (HZI) staff that continues to this day.  The PDC staff worked alongside HZI staff, each sharing their techniques and expertise.  Dought and Xmas spent time with different areas of the zoo as they related to their jobs in Zimbabwe.

Dought-17, Jesse and Kyle

Six months later, Brandon Patterson of the Facilities Department, travelled to Zimbabwe where he aided in the reconstruction of a dip tank for cattle.  The dip tank is a ramp system where cattle are led down through the water at the bottom to treat them for flies and other paracites.  Rainwater was normally used in the dip tank, but the dry season made it difficult.  The community built a water catchment right next to the tank so they could continue to use it through the dry season.

Soon after Brandon’s visit a member of the conservation department and a Houston Zoo board member travelled to Painted Dog Conservation to enhance their conservation education programing.  They added amphibian and bat educational components to their existing eco-system based children’s Bush Camp education program.

With PDC recently building its onsite clinic, HZI’s Veterinary Hospital Manager Lisa Marie Avendano was sent to Zimbabwe with supplies for the treatment center and to assist in the training of the clinic staff.  The new onsite clinic will enable staff to treat sick or injured dogs right at the facility in lieu of a four hour drive to the nearest animal hospital.  With the donated equipment, they will even be able to run labs and diagnostic tests!


Cooperation between these two organizations has helped both to improve their programs and enhance their understanding of how to conserve painted dogs in the wild.  To learn more about PDC and what the Houston Zoo is doing to help save this amazing species, please join us for the Dog Days of Summer event August 3-4 at the Houston Zoo.  There will be Meet the Keeper talks, enrichment demonstrations, kids’ crafts, and the opportunity to aid our pack’s wild counterparts!


Carnivores Hunting

I have been told that I can be a little competitive.  I would like to think it is just that I am driven and do not like to fail.  Regardless, the end result is that if something is a little difficult for me I will often keep trying until I can get it right.  I often see that same manic glint in the eyes of our zoo residents as they try to figure out an enrichment item.  Enrichment is something that keepers offer to the animals at the Zoo every day.  It can be something as simple as a new food item, or as complex as a giant barrel made to look like a bird and filled with meat.  Whatever it may be, it is something different in an animal’s environment that encourages natural behaviors.

For me, nothing is more powerful than watching our carnivores “hunt”.  The absolute stillness which overtakes their bodies as they stalk their “prey” makes me not want to blink for fear of missing that crucial lunge.  Of course the pounce is so big that there was never a chance of missing it in the first place!  The Carnivore Keepers at the Houston Zoo help to encourage those natural hunting behaviors through the enrichment items they provide.

One of the lions proves that this species can indeed climb trees. She was able to knock the large femur bone from its perch.
The African Painted Dog pack works together to tear down a hanging piece of meat from a zip-line.

The carnivores at the zoo are fed a special meat diet formulated to meet the nutritional requirements of both felids and canids (cats and dogs).  They also receive special treats ranging from fish, to chicken, to even meal worms and crickets!  Presenting their regular diet as well as special treats in a variety of ways helps to engage that hunting behavior and offers the carnivores as well as our guests something special.

This can be especially important for social carnivores such as Lions and African Painted Dogs.  Offering them special food items as a group or an opportunity to hunt as a pack reestablishes crucial social ties.  Lions, for example, eat in order of a specific hierarchy.  The male eats first followed by females in order of dominance.  While keepers feed the majority of their diet separately to discourage aggression and make sure each lion receives their fair share, it is important to occasionally encourage the social interaction that occurs around a carcass.

The 15th of every month allows keepers to do just that.  The carnivores are offered a treat called bone-in-meat.  This is a large hunk of meat with the bone still inside.  The larger cats receive pieces ranging anywhere from 15-30lbs!  Presentations of this treat vary from sending it down a zip-line to staking in on exhibit, but the ripping and tearing involved in the consumption of this treat is enriching for animals and guests alike.

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