BY Karyl Carmignani
Photography by Ken Bohn
Lanky and lean, the mysterious, misnamed, and misunderstood wild dog of South America is a sight to behold. Though it resembles a red fox on stilts, it is not closely related to the vulpine family. Despite its common name, it is not closely affiliated with wolves, either. But it does sport a dramatic, dark-colored mane down its back that flares up when the animal feels threatened.
Meet the big-eared, red-haired, long-legged maned wolf. This species is aloof for a canid, and it is far less vocal than other wild dogs.
“These animals are the opposite of what people think they know,” said San Diego Zoo lead wildlife care specialist Tammy Batson. Once guests lay eyes on these elegant-looking creatures, they really “give people a reason to care.”
Who Are You?
Its blazing long fur, solitary lifestyle, and omnivorous diet thrust the maned wolf into a genus all its own: Chrysocyon. Native to Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru, the maned wolf inhabits grasslands and scrub forest. It is thought that its exceedingly long legs allow the animal to see above the tall grass while hunting and running.
Unlike true wolves, maned wolves tend toward a solitary lifestyle, but do form monogamous pair bonds. Though a pair shares a large, permanent home range (up to 17 square miles) they hunt independently and only come together for breeding. However, male maned wolves in zoos provide regurgitated food for the young, which indicates that they may stick around to help raise their offspring in the wild, as well.
Yet another quirk to the maned wolf lifestyle is its diet. Though classified as a carnivore, it is a true omnivore (minus the dilemma). During the rainy season, it eats mainly lobeira, a tomato-like fruit from a low, spiny bush—in fact, the fruit is also called the “wolf apple” for this reason. Studies of maned wolf feces have indicated that just over three-quarters of its diet is made up of fruit and vegetable matter. The other portion of its diet consists of small mammals, reptiles, birds and their eggs, and insects. With so much of its diet “vegetarian,” a special Mazuri Maned Wolf Diet was created for animals in zoos, which contains less animal-based protein (and reduced sodium) and more plant-based protein to help control cystinuria levels in the animals, which could otherwise lead to kidney stones, an often-fatal condition.
Rather than chasing down prey, maned wolves tend to stalk and pounce, their large, erect ears ever alert to the telltale sounds of their next meal. They are most active at night during dusk and dawn hours, spending the daylight hours dozing under the cover of thick brush.
Maned wolves have a somewhat abbreviated vocal repertoire, compared to other wild dogs. They don’t howl or bay, but use use three other sounds: a deep-throated single bark, usually heard at dusk; a high-pitched whine, sometimes used in greeting; and a growl during antagonistic behavior. Most of their communication is done through olfactory means. Their pungent urine serves as a “keep out” signpost. Other maned wolves can smell it a mile away, and discern a great deal from an individual’s “perfume.” Is the animal healthy? Ready to breed? Protecting its territory? This canid’s long, slender muzzle can read the fine print of those scent marks!
Positive Reinforcement Training
At the Zoo, maned wolves share a spacious, outdoor habitat in the Northern Frontier area, and also have off-view indoor dens. They have access to fresh water and dry kibble at all times, and their special “high-value” treat is mice, which is used as a reward during their short training sessions. These animals are somewhat shy and do not view humans as food, which allows wildlife care specialists to work with them inside their habitat. Since most animals will mask any illness they may have to avoid appearing weak, it is important for the wildlife care team to be able to monitor each animal’s weight as a health marker. “We use operant conditioning and positive reinforcement techniques to get the animals to make good decisions with us,” explained Tammy. “If we can train them to get on a scale or provide urine samples, it reduces stress on the animals and the staff.”
When wildlife talks are scheduled at the Zoo, guests can watch wildlife care specialists work with each maned wolf, practicing target training, which is a useful baseline behavior. Each has its own six-inch plastic target (red or blue), with a snap hook that the wildlife care specialist uses to attach to the fence at different places and heights. The wildlife care specialist has a container of the day’s allotment of 15 mice for each animal. The maned wolf is focused, sensing the rewards to come. The wildlife care specialist gestures toward the target, which is paired with the verbal command “target,” and the maned wolf touches the target with its nose. The wildlife care specialist uses a clicker to bridge the correct behavior, so the maned wolf knows exactly what it has done right. “We don’t touch these guys,” said Tammy. “It’s important to respect their boundaries. The only time they touch [each other] is to fight or breed, and I don’t want either of those things.” The keepers use intermittent reinforcement for the training session, so after a few correct “target” behaviors, a mouse is given and gobbled down instantly. “This is also a great way to make sure the less-dominant animal is getting a fair share.”
Despite their beauty and retiring nature, maned wolves face a number of threats across their range—including hunting, superstition, and habitat loss as humans convert wild spaces to agriculture. Some rural people attach mystical qualities to various body parts of the maned wolf (including their eyes, skin, and tail), which are used as talismans or for folk remedies. Others persecute the wild dogs for taking chickens. Currently, maned wolves are listed as Near Threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. It is hoped that zoos around the world can help protect this regal species in its native habitat while also breeding them in captivity, which has proved challenging. We need to work together to give this wild dog a leg up on its long-term survival.