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African wild dogs in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

African wild dogs in a natural habitat: Botswana's Okavango Delta (file picture).

Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic

Christine Dell'Amore

for National Geographic News

Published November 5, 2012

In a "worst nightmare" situation, 11 African wild, or painted, dogs killed a two-year-old Pennsylvania boy Sunday after he had fallen into an enclosure at the Pittsburgh Zoo, zoo officials confirmed at a press conference Monday.

One of the dogs was shot after it wouldn't leave the boy's body. The others have been quarantined.

"The zoo feels terrible that this tragic accident happened," said Barbara Baker, chief executive of the Pittsburgh Zoo, which remains closed until further notice.

Why did the carnivores attack the boy? We contacted African wild dog experts Rosie Woodroffe, senior research fellow at London's Institute of Zoology, and Kim McCreery, of the African Wild Dog Conservancy in Tucson, Arizona, to get some insight into the animals' behavior.

Tell me a little bit about African wild dogs.

Kim McCreery: They live in packs, similar to wolves. They're a family group. Mom, dad, and older siblings take care of the pups. They even have babysitters at the den. Pups get to eat first, unlike other group-living carnivores.

In terms of their social organization, they're very similar to human families.

We [McCreery and African Wild Dog Conservancy co-founder Bob Robbins] have studied their behavior for years. Wild dogs have a high investment in friendly and submissive behaviors. They don't bare their canines like other dogs. Rather, they do a lip curl, which is very hard to notice.

Are African wild dogs threatened?

McCreery: They are classified as endangered by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature]. Habitat fragmentation and persecution [by people] are their two main threats. (Take an endangered-animal quiz.)

Why do you think the Pittsburgh Zoo dogs attacked the boy who'd fallen into their habitat?

McCreery: We can't really say. My colleague [Bob Robbins] and I have been talking about it. What happened yesterday was a tragedy. And we don't know exactly what happened.

In the wild, we have never been threatened by wild dogs, and we've spent countless hours in the African bush.

Rosie Woodroffe (via email): Of course, this is a sad and traumatic event, which must have been horrific for the child's family and for the witnesses. I have children of this sort of age myself and really feel for the family's loss.

The first point I'd like to make is that wild dogs are not dangerous to people in the wild. I have never heard of an attack on people, and where I work in Kenya, people—including small children herding goats or walking to school—encounter wild dogs on foot regularly, yet local people are not afraid of them.

I have personally walked up to wild dogs many times and never once felt threatened. (See African wild dog pictures.)

The second thing to point out is that wild dogs are extremely bold and curious. For example, if you drive up to them in a vehicle, they are likely to come up to have a look rather than run away. So, if something unusual falls into their enclosure, I would expect the whole pack to immediately rush up to investigate.

So, I would imagine the wild dogs' perspective on this event would be: What just fell into our enclosure? Let's go and see! It's not scary, but it's movinglet's bite it (assuming they did; I don't know if they did)! Our keepers are trying to distract us, but this thing is new and way more interesting.

Would wild dogs have behaved differently than the captive wild dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo?

McCreery: Captive-bred animals can behave differently than their wild counterparts, but there is nothing we can say with certainty as it relates to this tragedy. The context in captivity is so different than in the wild.

Anything else you want to say about wild dogs?

Woodroffe: When all is said and done, wild dogs are predators and have the instinct to pursue prey. Free-ranging wild dogs are curious about people but afraid of them at close quarters ... yet in captivity I would expect that fear to be much reduced, as they see people at close quarters every day.

Nevertheless, I very much doubt that this was a predatory attack.

Had these dogs been serious about killing such a small child for food, I think that such a large pack would have done a great deal more damage in the time the child was in the enclosure. A wild pack of that size would dismember prey of that size within seconds and consume it within minutes.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

2 comments
hugues lefebure
hugues lefebure

Could 2-3 men have jumped into the pen and rescued the child without any big risk of being hurt themselves?  or would they have been attacked?

hugues lefebure
hugues lefebure

Could 2-3 adult men have jumped in the pen and saved the child without being hurt themselves?

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