Cute names, complex creatures: 11 painted pups make their home in zoo's Africa exhibit

Nacho, Brie, others among only 120 in U.S. zoos
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 11, 2017

CINCINNATI -- For the second time in two years, visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden will see a passel of painted pups bounding about the African exhibit.

The 11 pups recently received “cheesy” names from their keepers, with the two males dubbed Nacho and Muenster and nine female pups Bleu, Brie, Gouda, Queso, Colby, Swiss, Cotija, Mozzarella and Feta.

“We love cheese,” said primary painted dog keeper Dana Burke. “One of us is always stuffing cheese in our mouth, so it kind of became a joke with us. We thought it would be really cool to name them after Cincinnati breweries, but there were too many girls and not enough feminine names. So we thought, ‘What about cheese?’”

Watch the cheesy pups in action:

Raising 11 pups can be a challenge for domestic dogs, but Burke said it’s not uncommon for painted dogs to have large litters, with as many as 19 being recorded in the wild. She said the species tends to run hot and cold when it comes to births, especially in captivity, with 2015 being an exceptional year. In addition to Imara’s pups last fall, a female gave birth to a litter of 10 at the Audubon Zooin September, and female Xena topped the charts with a litter of 14 at the Oklahoma Zoo in November.

“The average litter is only between six and eight in captivity. … The genetic diversity isn’t as great as it is in the wild,” Burke said. “It’s boom or bust for this species, because they’re incredibly high maintenance. They’re very difficult in captivity to manage.”

That could be why so few zoos keep the species; 33 zoos in North America house approximately 120 dogs, and 574 zoos worldwide have the species. Keeping an alpha breeding pair is fairly simple, Burke said, but introducing others into the pack can get dicey. Because painted dogs establish a very distinct hierarchy, she said, personalities and behaviors have to be constantly assessed to keep the peace.

“If you look to wild dogs, the challenges of raising a litter are totally different,” Burke said. “There’s disease or not enough food. Lions are a big challenge for painted dogs in the wild, because lions like to kill them for fun. Pretty much everything in captivity relies on the social dynamics.”

The zoo’s pack seems to be getting on well, Burke said, even with the addition of the 11 pups. After Imara’s first mate, Brahma, died suddenly in May 2015, keepers introduced her new mate, Kwasi, and his brother Masai from the Perth Zoo in Australia.

Of the previous group of 10 pups, the zoo kept Lucy because she fits in nicely as the bottom dog of the pack. While Burke is accepted as part of the pack, she said she probably ranks somewhere near the bottom, as well.

Two of the 11 painted dog pups at the Cincinnati Zoo. (Photo provided)

“I’m definitely not an alpha,” she said. “Imara and Kwasi will both occasionally charge me when they’re with the pups, so I’m almost treated like Lucy. I’m not allowed to be that close to the pups or interact with them. That will change with time. Kwasi is a super, super nervous dad. I don’t take any of this personally.”

During the last decade, husbandry for painted dogs has changed dramatically, Burke said, with far less intervention from keepers. They’ve learned it’s best to let the pack work out difficulties even though it may be hard to watch.

“You think you have smooth sailing, and it’s only a matter of time and the species will break your heart over and over,” she said. “To me, that’s what makes them so fascinating and wonderful.”

In normal circumstances, pups can remain up to two years with their parents. The keepers plan to keep the pups as long as possible to give visitors the opportunity to see the rare species. Painted dogs are one of the most endangered carnivores on the African continent, with fewer than 5,000 remaining in the wild. Mortality rates in both captivity and the wild tend to be high.

Burke is a member of the painted dog Species Survival Plan and writes a blog detailing the dog’s behaviors. She and Christina Gorsuch, curator of mammals at the Cincinnati Zoo and vice coordinator of the African Painted Dog Species Survival Plan, created a catalog of the dogs housed at zoos and facilities and their personalities. She said charting dogs helps the Species Survival Plan find matches when shifting them to other packs.

In her 20th year as a keeper, Burke said she’s worked with myriad species, including wolves, but painted dogs are by far the most engaging.

“No matter how many times I work with them or talk about them, it just never gets old for me. They’re my favorite.”