The night sky has served humankind in everything from navigation to inspiration since long before writing existed. As we move through the warm "dog days" of summer, the Reid Park Zoo is continuing their Summer Safari Nights series by showcasing their exotic canines and animals that rely on the night sky.
The dog days run from the beginning of July through mid-August, and right in the middle, the Reid Park Zoo is hosting their "Dog Days and Astronomy Summer" special on Saturday, July 24.
The centerpiece for the dog days event are the zoo's four African wild dogs, also called painted dogs, which bear striking coats and are known for their successful pack hunting. The Reid Park Zoo's four African wild dogs were born in the Oregon Zoo. Originally a litter of 12, the new breed meant the Oregon Zoo then had 15 wild dogs, and they asked fellow zoos if they'd like to take some, which the Reid Park Zoo happily accepted in November 2020.
"Their social dynamics are one of the most interesting parts," zookeeper Hannah Carbonneau said. "I have worked with some primates, so I'm really interested in animals that have unique group dynamics. It's interesting to go in and help foster those relationships... They are considered hyper-social, so the most reinforcing and rewarding thing for them is each other. Even wolves will disperse their packs sometimes. But the [African dogs] really don't break apart, and if they do, they are very rarely accepted into other packs."
According to Carbonneau, the zookeepers gave the dogs a few days to explore their new surroundings at Reid Park Zoo. The dogs did some calling for their old pack, but once they realized it was just the four of them, they settled down and sorted out the new alpha. The dogs also got used to the keepers, their new habitat, and where they felt comfortable in their new enclosure.
"Wolves and dogs have eyebrow movement and more facial expressions, but these don't have as many, and researchers think it's because they don't need to reunite as much. Their social hierarchy is kind of set, and that's that," Carbonneau said. "So we're constantly making sure they're happy and getting along. Fights do happen sometimes, but that's normal."
Despite some of these unique traits, the African dogs do behave similarly to domestic dogs a fair amount of the time. They play, thrash around on their backs, enjoy tearing up sticks and are always interested in poop. (So much so that Carbonneau even knows their preferred hierarchy: first rhino droppings, then elephant, then zebra.)
Also featured during the dog days Summer Safari Night is the giant anteater, featured in the Reid Park Zoo's logo. Giant anteaters are not canids, but do use the light from the night sky for navigation. Also known as ant bears, the anteaters are mostly nocturnal due to their insect-eating habits, but it may also be in response to human disturbances.
During Summer Safari Nights, Reid Park Zoo staff also discusses conservation and sustainability of their highlighted animals. Due to giant anteaters' nighttime navigation, light pollution is a concern. But more than that, giant anteaters suffer major losses in Brazil, becoming some of the most common roadkill in the country.
The zoo is also using the time to show off their reptiles, including skinks and bearded dragons. During the event, zookeepers will set up different display areas throughout the park for closer animal encounters. While Tucsonans are no stranger to reptiles, the zoo's blue-tongued skinks are much larger than most lizards you'll find in the Sonoran Desert.
"A lot of reptiles have desert adaptations, like the bearded dragon, even though they're adapted for deserts on the opposite side of the world," said lead keeper Katie Hutchinson. "Reptiles are great at water conservation themselves. So I think we can learn a lot from them, especially during the monsoon, about how to use our water resources properly."
Summer Safari Nights takes place every Saturday evening through Aug. 14 at the Reid Park Zoo. The events include live music, recreational activities, food and drinks, and wildlife activities. Live music for this upcoming installation will be performed by Jamie's Gang, and the zoo will also host astronomy activities. For more information, visit reidparkzoo.org/event/summer-safari-nights-2021.
This article is the last in a series of three detailing the Reid Park Zoo animals highlighted at the Summer Safari Nights event series.