Kids Get Lessons on Life from Wild African Dogs

A group of inner-city kids is learning about African painted dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo. In the process, they're discovering new ways to be better citizens. The Allegheny Front's Karen Schaefer has more.

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OPEN: Inner city kids in Pittsburgh are learning how to treat each other and their community from an unlikely source - a pack of wild dogs. A nonprofit called Project Destiny has teamed up with the Pittsburgh Zoo to introduce disadvantaged children to the tightly-knit social life of African painted dogs. The goal is to get to kids to apply the lessons of wild dog family life to their own. The Allegheny Front Karen Schaefer reports:

SCHAEFER: With their lean, rangy bodies, spotted coats, and huge Mickey Mouse ears, African painted dogs are like no other animal on earth. And there aren't many left. Only 3 to 5-thousand still roam the plains of sub-Saharan Africa, where once nearly a half-million dogs flourished. Karen Vacco, assistant curator of mammals at the Pittsburgh Zoo, is helping to conserve this now endangered species by raising a close-knit pack of 13-painted dogs. †Sheís standing near the fenced yard where the dogs live and play at the zoo, but she canít get too close - these are wild animals. Eight of them are new puppies who emit squeaky yips as she calls them.

AMBI: Vacco calling dogs, sound of dogs yipping, bring up under end of above graph:

VACCO: Every morning, there's a huge greeting session. And the adults will greet the puppies and everybody greets everybody. And the intensity of the sound is so extreme.

AMBI: †frantic yips up and under:

SCHAEFER: This year's litter is the second successful in-captivity breeding at the Pittsburgh zoo. Vacco says what makes the dogs unique is their intensely social interaction.

VACCO: Because they are so social and they do rely on each other, they are the most successful carnivore probably in the world. They actually get a kill one out of three times. So, if they're out there hunting, they're pretty much eating every day, as long as they have the numbers.

AMBI: more dog yips, fade out under:

SCHAEFER: Vacco says in the wild, the dogs cooperate closely to hunt down prey like antelopes and warthogs. They share food and assist those who are weak or sick. And pups are raised by the entire pack. It's this unusual mutual reliance that gave Reverend Brenda Gregg the idea to introduce the dogs to a group of inner-city children. Gregg is director of Project Destiny, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that helps nurture disadvantaged youth. †Gregg believes in connecting children with wildlife and nature. †Her group sponsors an annual field trip to Florida, where kids experience environmental issues firsthand. †Gregg chose the African painted dogs as a way to connect to Project Destinyís primarily African-American youth - and to teach them about the value of family life.

GREGG: They work as a group, they work as a family. They respect each other. They take care of each other.

SCHAEFER: Gregg says in Pittsburgh alone, more than 4-thousand kids live in foster care. She says that means many never experience family life ñ sometimes with major consequences.

GREGG: In the city of Pittsburgh we have had a lot of homicides. And so we started looking at ways that we may be able to teach children how they interact better with each other. And we've found that the way that the African painted dog does that with their families was the way we wanted to teach our kids that in the inner city.

AMBI: sound of kids at zoo, under:

SCHAEFER: Last summer, a group of Project Destiny summer camp students took a behind-the-scenes trip to the Pittsburgh zoo to see the African painted dogs up close. After watching the puppies work together to tear apart a toy, 12-year-old Tyler McGee made it clear he got the message.

MCGEE: If somebody helps me out, I'll help them out. And it they want to play football, I'll play football with him. It's like helping each other out. Because if you want respect, you have to show respect.

SCHAEFER: Project Destiny kids will continue to take weekend trips to watch more dog family life in action. For The Allegheny Front, I'm Karen Schaefer.