My 6 month long USA fieldwork ended in September 2014 and I must say, it was quite an adventure!
My plane landed in the cold Chicago on the 28th of April. First item on the program was attending the African Painted Dog conference in Brookfield Zoo, Chicago, were I had the pleasure to meet numerous zoo keepers, veterinarians and researchers all, like me, with a special interest in this incredible species.
Together with one of the IBREAM Directors, Monique Paris, I presented our African wild dog research project. Our project is supported by the African wild dog Species Survival Plan and it was great to hear all that positive feedback after the presentation. During the conference, I realized that not only the free-living African wild dog population is in distress but also part of the captive population, and that in fact techniques such as artificial insemination, could help sustain this population more than I initially thought.
After the conference, I had a couple of days to prepare for the start of my sample collection and to drive to the first zoo. I had several goals to accomplish during my very first PhD fieldwork, and sample collections were planned for both the African wild dog pre-breeding season (May, June) as the breeding season (August, September). I wanted to collect data and samples to learn more about (1) African wild dog male reproductive physiology (figure out if subdominant males are less fertile than dominant ones); (2) African wild dog semen freezing (test different semen freezing protocols to improve the relatively bad results that had been published so far); (3) the effectiveness of Dog Appeasing Pheromones® (in partnership with IRSEA) to reduce stress and aggressive behavior in captivity (a follow-up study of previous work performed by Bart Vlamings) and (4) Pheromones involved in reproduction and/or dominance specifically secreted by these animals. To do so, I planned to stay an extra 8 days around the day of the semen collection in every zoo, and perform daily observations (behavior analysis) and faecal collections (hormonal analysis). Together with the sample analysis that had to be performed, a very busy 6 months were lying ahead of me.
One of my supervisors, Dr. Damien Paris, stayed in the US to help me with my first four weeks of sample collection. For this I am really grateful as the first couple of weeks were quite hectic! We picked up a rental car and ended up driving around the Chicago area for two days to pick up all our supplies that had delayed deliveries. Afterwards, our three-day drive started, following Route 66. About a 1330 miles (2140 kilometers!) filled with countryside scenery, billboards and a bunch of motel towns later, we arrived in Albuquerque (NM).
Albuquerque is the biggest city in New Mexico and has quite some charisma! Characterized by the surrounding Sandia Mountains and the Rio Grande River, a rich history and Pueblo culture and desert temperatures, I ended up loving this place. The zoo Albuquerque BioPark Zoo was as amazing as the city and its surroundings, with great and very helpful staff (that produced a baby elephant after artificial insemination of one of their females!) and three wonderful African wild dog boys Moose, Digger and Growley.
After a busy but very successful first set of sample collections, we headed to Topeka, the capital City of Kansas.
Topeka Zoo is quite a small but lovable zoo and once more I met a bunch of enthusiastic people and three wild dogs Hunter, Kipaku and Minzi. Once more, my stay was filled with adventures especially with our interview at the local television station WIBW.
After the sample collections in Topeka, I dropped off Damien at the Kansas airport and headed back to Chicago. There I picked up my partner Thomas, who flew over from France to visit me and help me with my fieldwork for 5 weeks. I had about two weeks before I had to start sample collection at Brookfield zoo, and although I had a lot of other work to do, I was able to take some days off in between to visit Chicago, and even go to the Chicago Blues Festival.
The huge Brookfield Zoo has a large amount of animal species. They also have raised several African wild dog litters successfully, so I was very excited about working with them. Their wild dogs at the time were Digger, the alpha male, Kim, the alpha female and their male offspring Jack and Nar.
A couple of days before starting at Brookfield Zoo, Alex Vergara-Lansdell arrived. Alex is a student in Animal Conservation from the UK that wanted to volunteer on the wild dog project for several months as part of his University practice. Alex help was extremely beneficial to the project. With his help we were able to observe the wild dogs from two different points of view of the enclosure.
Next on the list was Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek (MI). Again I met three great wild dogs Blacktail, Verizon and Victor. What I loved about the zoo is the Wild Africa area with their enormous Savanna enclosure holding giraffes, zebras and other game.
This brought me to the beginning of July and the end of the pre-breeding season sample collections which gave me some time to go to Hillsdale College (MI) to drop off my samples and drive back to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque to start some of my laboratory analysis. Luckily in between I managed to get to the Grand Canyon in Arizona which is probably one of the most stunning places I have ever visited!
Soon it was August and the start of the wild dog breeding season in the Northern hemisphere. Samples were collected again at the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo, Brookfield Zoo and Binder Park zoo, as well as at the Oklahoma City Zoo who was very eager to participate in our study. They held three African wild dog brothers Dojo, Juma and Chipata and a gorgeous wild dog female Xena. The wild dogs stopped mating about three weeks before we arrived and the female had her pups in November. Xena didn’t accept her pups so the zoo staff had the genius idea of getting them raised by a domestic dog.
After the last sample collection, I went back to Hillsdale College and had a month filled with long days (and nights) processing (drying) fecal samples and finishing sperm analysis.
The end of October, I flew back to Australia with a mountain of work ahead of me (processing data, arranging sample transport, getting my University Confirmation of Candidature done…).
However, I am very pleased with my first set of sample collections as well as the first results!
Up to the next research adventure!