African painted dog Ella welcomes first litter of pups

November 15, 2018 - 12:20pm

First-time mom and her pups are doing well in behind-the-scenes maternity den

Ella, a 2-year-old African painted dog at the Oregon Zoo, gave birth to a litter of pups over the Veterans Day weekend. According to keepers, the first-time mom and her new babies are doing well in their behind-the-scenes maternity den. This litter is the first offspring for Ella and the pups' father Juma, and the first of this endangered species to be born at the Oregon Zoo.

"We're excited to welcome these pups, and Ella is doing a great job as a first-time mom so far," said Laura Weiner, senior keeper for the zoo's Africa area. "We're giving the new family plenty of time and space to bond, but we've been checking in regularly on their den camera."

According to Weiner, this time and space is critical. Not only does Ella need to learn to be a mother on her own schedule, her pups have a lot to learn as well.

"Painted dogs have complicated social structures," Weiner said. "We're taking a hands-0ff approach so the pups can learn the ropes on their own."

Weiner notes that the Species Survival Plan for painted dogs — administered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — recommends this approach for all pups born into the population. In most cases, intervention is considered inappropriate for an animal's long-term quality of life and is therefore not an option.

Though keepers haven't yet been close enough to the pups to count them, African painted dogs typically give birth to large litters — anywhere from 10 to 16 pups. Based on video from the maternity den camera, Ella and Juma's litter appears to be in the lower part of that range.

Keepers will continue to give Ella and the pups complete privacy for now, although all of the zoo's painted dogs can enter and leave the maternity den whenever they choose. When they're about 8 weeks old, the pups will receive a quick veterinary checkup, at which time care staff will be able to determine how many are male or female.

"Painted dog pups are born blind, so they'll stay in the den until they're able to see and get around on their own," Weiner said. "But when they join the pack in a few months, guests can expect to see a lot of fun puppy activity."

The zoo was able to prep for the pups' arrival thanks to a heads-up from the zoo's Wildlife Endocrine Lab earlier this fall. Lab scientists, who had been monitoring hormones in Ella, noted a steep, steady rise in the painted dog's progesterone — a possible sign of pregnancy. Animal-care staff later confirmed the pregnancy via ultrasound, which Ella would voluntarily stand still for thanks to positive-reinforcement training.

The scientific name for the African painted dog is Lycaon pictus, which means "painted wolf." The coat markings on each individual are unique. Their highly sensitive ears act like satellite dishes, allowing them to hear their prey from a distance. Their large ears serve as cooling systems too: Air moves over the blood vessels in their ears and carries heat away.

Once a half million strong, the African painted dog is now struggling to maintain a population of around 5,000, having been wiped out in 25 of the 39 countries in which it once resided due to habitat fragmentation and conflicts with humans. The dogs are widely regarded as pests and in many areas they are poisoned, shot and trapped. They also face serious threats from the growing domestic dog population, which brings painted dogs into contact with diseases like rabies and distemper.

African painted dogs are listed as Endangered by the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Ella, Juma and the rest of the Oregon Zoo pack are part of the AZA's Species Survival Plan for painted dogs.